US DOJ Reports on Sex Offenders

February 22, 2010

In 2008, the Vera Institute of Justice produced two survey reports for the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. The first, The Pursuit of Safety: Sex Offender Policy in the U.S. , reviewed federal and state laws concerning sex offenders and the impact of these laws. The second, Treatment and Reentry Practices for Sex Offenders: An Overview of States, analyzed programs for sex offenders in 37 states. Together, the reports provide a look at national trends in responses to sex offenders. This summary highlights their findings.

This summary listed three key findings:

* Policies vary widely in their ability to protect the public, and particularly children, from sexual victimization. Most focus on preventing repeat offenses by strangers, a relatively rare event compared with sex offenses by people known to the victim and the victim’s family.

* Some sex offender policies can have an unintended negative impact on public safety. By making it harder for offenders to find shelter, employment, and social supports, these policies drive some offenders out of contact with authorities.

* More research is needed on how to prevent sex offenses and maximize public safety through more effective policies.

The reports are available at

* www.vera.org/content/pursuit-safety-sex-offender-policy-united-states – (141 pages)

* www.vera.org/content/treatment-and-reentry-practices-sex-offenders-overview-states-0

These reports include a very good summary of the history and background of sex offender laws, and include a state-by-state summary of sex offender laws and registration requirements.

Excerpts:

Media Sensationalism: “Some sociologists believe that the recent wave of sex offender laws has been the result of a “moral panic,” an exaggerated public response to a perceived threat. However, as figure 2 shows, 93 percent of offenses against children are committed by family members and acquaintances; the “stranger danger” crimes, which spurred the creation of most sex offense laws, are relatively rare. These observers argue that changes in the media—in particular, the rise of 24/7 cable news stations and Internet news sites have increased public awareness of sex crimes, with the result that many people now believe that crimes against children are on the rise. According to this viewpoint, policymakers have simply responded to the public’s demand for countermeasures. As one legislator recently told a group of researchers, “I can’t go anywhere without someone asking me about some [sex offense] they heard on the news, ‘What are you doing about that?’” Some also point out that the first wave of sex offender laws in the United States—the one that occurred between 1937 and 1955—also coincided with a major advance in communications, the advent of television as a presence in the national media. ”

Recidivism: “However, there is a significant body of research that appears to contradict this proposition. One recent study found that sex offenders had a five-year recidivism rate of 24.5 percent for all offenses and a 2.8 percent recidivism for sexual offenses; in contrast, other felony offenders had a five-year recidivism rate of approximately 48 percent for all offenses.24 Another study found that people arrested for sexual offenses had a five-year offense-specific re-arrest rate (the rate at which they were re-arrested for the same crime within five years) of 6.5 percent. Only people arrested for homicide had a lower five-year offense-specific re-arrest rate (5.7 percent); the rates for robbery, burglary, and public order offenses were 17.9 percent, 23.1 percent, and 21.4 percent, respectively.25 A 1994 study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that 24 percent of sex offenders were convicted of another crime (including but not restricted to sex offenses) within three years; in contrast 46.9 percent of all offenders were convicted of another crime within this period.”

Public Misinformation: “There is some evidence that the general public, in spite of its strong support for tough sexual offense laws, is not well-informed about the nature and extent of sexual offending. One recent study, which compared survey responses with published data, found that the public significantly overstates both the rate at which convicted sex offenders re-offend and the proportion of sexual assaults that are committed by strangers (see figure 3, below). These findings led researchers to conclude that public misperceptions “present a clear challenge to policymakers seeking to create empirically based policies that meet the public’s expectations.” ”

Residency Restrictions: “In spite of their popularity, there is no evidence that residency restrictions are effective in reducing recidivism by sex offenders. Rather, the evidence suggests that residency restrictions are in fact detrimental to public safety. A recent study of sex offenders in Minnesota examined the impact of residency restrictions on recidivism. Researchers found that, of the 3,166 sex offenders who were released from Minnesota correctional facilities between 1990 and 2002—a period when the state did not have residency restrictions—224 had been re-incarcerated for a new sex offense by January 1, 2006. After taking a closer look at these 224 cases, researchers found that none of the offenders had established contact with a child victim in an area that would be likely to fall within an exclusionary zone under a typical residency restriction law.”

“There is little empirical evidence that residency restrictions, as currently implemented, protect public safety. Residency restrictions push sex offenders to the fringes of communities, making it less likely that they will be able to obtain housing, find a job, and receive social support. Restrictions may also make it difficult for otherwise law-abiding offenders to comply with registration requirements—especially those that involve frequent, in-person reporting.”

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