Archive for April 5, 2010

Do Sex Offender Boundary Laws Work?

April 5, 2010 Comments off (ND): Do sex offender boundary laws work?

There’s no doubt that a ban on sex offenders living within 1,200 feet of Fargo’s schools or parks would be popular. Dave Piep­korn, the city commissioner backing that idea, said the reaction he’s had from Fargo residents has been “overwhelmingly positive,” and in a nonscientific online Forum poll last week, 86 percent of the 2,188 votes were in favor.

The enthusiasm explains why sex offender residency laws have grown quickly in the decade or so since they were first enacted. A report by the Center for Sex Offender Management, a project of the Department of Justice, states that from 2000 to 2008, the number of states with restrictions for sex offender housing went from five to nearly 30.

Yet Fargo’s police chief and the head of an area nonprofit that works with victims of sexual violence are both dubious about the effectiveness of such laws. And they’re not alone.

Studies of sex offender residency laws in areas they’ve been tried haven’t found any positive effect on recidivism rates. Authorities who deal with sex offenders – police, prosecutors and probation and parole agents – often end up opposing the buffer-zone restrictions.

“It’s almost totally driven by emotion,” said Richard Tewksbury, a University of Louisville professor of justice administration who studies sex offender laws. “Without exception, all the research shows there is no impact.”

Pushed to margins

Gary xxx is a Level III sex offender, a 65-year-old who must register for life because of two indecent exposure convictions in North Dakota, the latest in Cass County in 2007. Level III is the designation for sex offenders who are deemed the highest risk to re-offend.

He had difficulty finding a place to live at first, being turned down by a handful of landlords before ending up at xxxx. in Fargo – one of four Level III offenders in the apartment building.

Much of the city would be off-limits. That’s one of the troubles with broad bans on where sex offenders can live, said Tewksbury. If they can find a place at all, it’s in “the poorest, most disorganized, least desirable areas of the city,” he said, where it is more common for children to be unsupervised.

It also tends to make it harder for sex offenders to access treatment, find jobs and have a support system – all keys to crime-free life.

“We simply make life more difficult in the important ways,” Tewksbury said. Davis agreed, saying that isolation makes his recovery much harder. “The only way to be back in society is to be around people,” he said. Police Chief Keith Ternes said “We’ve put a scarlet letter on those people”.

Hardship without upside

Ternes is worried the 1,200-foot ordinance could lead more offenders to stop registering, as they must do under state law, which would in turn take up more of the police’s time.

That’s what happened in Iowa, one of the first places where offenders were barred from living by schools or parks. The state repealed the law upon the urging of law enforcement officials. It’s a case Ternes has pointed out publicly.

Tewksbury said he has conducted a study of re-offending rates in Iowa during the time the law was in place, though it hasn’t yet been published. Recidivism was unchanged, though the law put a greater burden on both the offenders and the authorities responsible for keeping tabs on them.

“It poses many hardships, with no real possibility of benefits,” he said.

The police chief is also skeptical that a geographical separation between places kids go and offenders’ homes does much to keep children safe.

A sex offender who’s looking to strike again can simply travel to those same areas, Ternes said. Also, a study in Minnesota showed that’s a rare occurrence.

That study of 224 repeat sex offenders from 1990 to 2005 found that 16 (7%) of them made contact with a juvenile victim within a mile of their home, but none of the contacts happened near a school, park or playground.

Piepkorn said he thinks some researchers “have an agenda” to support rights for sex offenders and said he’s been getting most of his negative feedback from out-of-state groups.

Greg Diehl, the executive director of the local Rape and Abuse Crisis Center, said though he can see the rationale of Piepkorn’s proposal, he doesn’t think much of the 1,200-foot law, either. He’d rather see new approaches implemented.

“I’m not sure that this would solve a whole lot of anything,” Diehl said. “The biggest issue is there are no easy answers.”

Oversight Key to Better Sex Offender Registry

April 5, 2010 Comments off Oversight Key to Better Sex Offender Registry.

At the state Capitol, the right thing sometimes happens for the political reason.

Case in point: A program that sends police officers to sex offenders’ homes became a permanent part of state law last week, allowing lawmakers to save face for dismantling the most dangerous offenders’ reporting requirement.

The grant program, operating since 2008, was a reaction to the murder of Zina Linnik, a Tacoma girl abducted from her Hilltop neighborhood and killed by a sex offender. A sex offender task force established after Linnik’s murder suggested the state do more to help keep track of sex offenders.

The state’s sex offender registry is a creation of state law, but day-to-day management of it falls to local police agencies. In the past, the state outsourced the job without sending money to do it. The result was uneven enforcement. How well the job got done depended on the agency’s ability to dedicate manpower to it. In Tacoma, one detective was assigned to monitor 1,200 offenders.

The grant program, administered by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, distributes $5 million a year to the state’s 39 counties. The program requires police to visit registered addresses every three months for Level 3 offenders, every six months for Level 2 offenders and yearly for Level 1 offenders.

It began as a budget proviso and might have remained such if not for a 2009 court ruling that undermined the state’s reporting requirements. Faced with having to undo the state’s mandate that Level 2 and Level 3 offenders check in every 90 days, lawmakers found the perfect antidote in the sheriffs association’s address-verification system.

Legislators wrote the grant program into law, giving it staying power and a nearly guaranteed claim on state dollars. Even in this, the toughest of tough budget years, the money for the sex offender checks is not at risk. No lawmaker wants to be cast as soft on predators.

Moving the registry from self-reporting toward more police verification is an important step, too. The honor system doesn’t work for people who haven’t proved honorable. Police have already found 2,300 cases of registered sex offenders not living at their listed addresses since the state-supported checks began.

Sex offenders who are less than honest about their whereabouts are evading the very thing that makes registries work: public scrutiny. Registries are only as useful as they are accurate.

YMCA Bans Registered Sex Offenders

April 5, 2010 Comments off (DE, MD, VA):YMCA Bans Registered Sex Offenders.

Salisbury — As part of a national initiative, Lower Shore YMCA branches will deny sex offenders access to facilities and programs.

The Mid-Delmarva Family YMCA announced that it would compare membership rolls with the National Registered Sex Offender database.

“This is an opportunity to identify and remove anyone posing a threat to them”, said Rich Stover, Mid-Delmarva YMCA chief executive officer.

The program, scheduled to begin this week, will screen anyone who has registered with the facility. Stover said any matches will be verified, and anyone flagged as part of the scan will be allowed to appeal. Any person appealing the decision will have their case looked at more specifically. Other YMCAs across the country have said the circumstances around a member’s offense may be taken into account.

Some are concerned that the program could open YMCA up to legal action based on anti-discrimination laws, but Stover said he isn’t worried about the possibility.

According to the screening service providers DAXKO and Raptor Technologies, sex offenders are known to the victim in more than 80 percent of sex crimes. In other words, they say, the suspect can be a parent, relative, caretaker, neighbor, co-worker or significant other. Sixty-seven percent of adults convicted of felony sex crimes have no prior criminal history.

Dr. Kathryn Seifert, CEO of Eastern Shore Psychological Services and a member of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Offenders, said there are a couple concerns that come to mind on the issue.

“I understand people’s need for safety and I can’t stress enough that I am all for keeping children safe,” Seifert said. “One thought I have though is, if they’re going to screen out sex offenders, are they also going to remove people with a history of murder, of selling drugs or people with assault charges? Where are they going to draw the line? I don’t know the answer, and the issue is very complex; but as there is the person who stole a candy bar as a teenager and the person who robs a bank and then the person who goes into a home robbery and kills a family — with sex offenders there are also levels.”

“I’m more worried about the sex offender sitting next to you in church,” Seifert said. “The offender who has not been identified is often who is most dangerous. There are some offenders who have been through treatment and will never offend again. … Part of people coming out of jail is learning to be part of a pro-social society. If they can’t be a part of that society. they will continue to be anti-social. … Looking at the circumstances of someone’s offense would be the common sense approach.”

Raptor Technologies said its service will rescan the YMCA database every 90 or 180 days. The Chincoteague Island Family YMCA and Lower Shore Family YMCA will also participate in the program, which many branches across the country have already begun.

The Mid-Delmarva Family YMCA
P.O. Box 3296, Salisbury, MD 21802-3296

Lower Shore Family YMCA Branch
1900 Worcester Highway
Pocomoke City, Maryland 21851
(410) 957-9622

Mid-Shore Family YMCA Branch
715 South Schumaker Drive
Salisbury, Maryland 21804
(410) 749-0101

Expert Warns Sex Offender Restrictions Could be Dangerous

April 5, 2010 Comments off (Wisconsin): Expert warns local sex offender restrictions could be dangerous.

Madison — An expert with the state Department of Corrections told a panel of state lawmakers Thursday that local ordinances restricting where sex offenders can live actually put children more at risk.

Dr. Anna Salter urged a state Senate panel to pass a bill that would end the more than 100 local sex offender ordinances throughout Wisconsin. Those ordinances make a couple fundamental presumptions: that sex offenders are likely to reoffend and that kids are safer if offenders don’t live near places like libraries or parks.

But Dr. Salter–a psychologist with 30 years of experience assessing and treating offenders–told Senators that there’s no data to back that up. She’s concerned “residency restrictions may put children more at risk, rather than less.”

Salter says the reality is that sex offenders reoffend only about a fourth as often as other offenders. And most of the time their victims are people they know like family members. Assaults involving complete strangers in places like public parks are rare.

So when local ordinances restrict where they can live, Salter says they end up moving where it’s harder for them to keep jobs and find the support they need.

TN: Man Arrested for Going to Beach

April 5, 2010 Comments off Paris TN: No beach party for sex offender.

David xxxx, 43, was arrested by Cpl. Milton Webb of the Henry County Sheriff’s Department after David’ parole officer reported that David was violating the sex offender registry by going to a beach area containing several families with underage children.

All Sex Offenders Are Not Equal

April 5, 2010 Comments off All Sex Offenders Are Not Equal.

Laws such as the Walsh Act, often named for victims of crimes the law is trying to prevent, are of course well-intentioned. But they tend not to be based on research, and so do not achieve an optimal level of public safety. Indeed, they can unintentionally make things worse.

For example, if Connecticut officials followed the research, they would not expand the state’s sex offender registry, but reduce it.

All states have sex offender registries to which residents have online access. Some states put offenders on their registries based on their risk to the community. Connecticut is one of the states that place people on the registry because they are convicted of a sex offense.

Many people assume everyone on the registry is either a rapist or pedophile. If that were so, the list would be much smaller. But it also includes an array of porn possessors, voyeurs and people who as older teenagers had consensual sex with an underage girlfriend or boyfriend. As a result, the state now has more than 5,000 people on the sex-offender registry, an increasingly unwieldy group for hard-pressed police departments to monitor.

Some on the list are dangerous and must be watched, but many are not. As the list is now presented, it’s difficult to tell one from the other. They are listed by the crime they were convicted of committing, but it’s not clear whether a conviction for “risk of injury” or “second-degree sexual assault” means the person is a danger to others. (The registry also misses people who pleaded to a lesser offense to stay off it.)

Why does the state list so many offenders? In part, as the Florida attorney general’s testimony suggests, from the widespread belief that sex offenders are likely to re-offend, along with the notions that all sex offenders are alike and that they are not amenable to treatment.

The research contradicts all of these premises.

The Myth Of Incorrigibility

Sex offenders represent a cross-section, ranging from psychotics to a lot of seemingly normal people who have made a serious mistake. “They’ve all done something bad, but they don’t all present the same level of risk,” said David D’Amora, who directs the state’s post-prison sex offender treatment programs for The Connection, a Middletown-based nonprofit.

Treatment works: It can reduce recidivism by as much as 40 percent, according to recent studies. “We have the lowest recidivism with the people we get through treatment, no question,” said William Carbone, director of the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division.

Perhaps the most surprising research finding is that sex offenders as a group have among the lowest rates of recidivism of any category of criminal.

A major U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study of nearly 10,000 sex offenders released in 1994 found that only 5.3 percent had been arrested for a new sex crime in the ensuing three years. Other studies put the sex offender recidivism rate between 14 and 20 percent.

The major implication to be drawn from this data is that the great majority of sex crimes are committed by new criminals, people who have never been arrested for such an offense before. That strongly suggests that more resources should be shifted upstream, to education and prevention programs in date and dorm rape, domestic violence and similar behaviors. Just focusing on convicted sex offenders ignores the prevalence of sexual violence in the broader culture, which in part is producing sex offenders.

Shrink The Sex-Offender Registry

One way to capture resources would be to shrink the sex-offender registry so that it only lists former violent offenders who may still pose an appreciable risk to the public.

If the list is there to protect the public, it’s not clear why nonviolent offenders should have to register at all. But if they do, they should not be on a list available to the public.

For low-risk offenders who have served their sentences, the additional burden of public humiliation can be devastatingly cruel. They need a home and a job, but when their presence on the sex offender registry becomes known, they not infrequently lose the house and job.

Sometimes they and their families suffer threats, harassment or physical harm, according to several studies. Some experts say the shame, isolation and depression that accompanies the public pillorying can trigger relapse.

Vermont limits public notification to individuals who pose a high risk to the community, as does Minnesota. New Jersey divides offenders into three tiers of risk, and the names on the low-risk tier are shared only with law enforcement agencies. That is the direction Connecticut should head.

Residency Restrictions

Another bill proposed this year, and wisely allowed to die in committee, would have prohibited a registered sex offender from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day care center. Although residency restrictions may make sense in individual cases — and are sometimes imposed as conditions of probation — blanket residency restrictions do not.

They are fueled in part by the notion of “stranger danger,” another myth that most child molesters are strangers, sinister perverts in trench coats lurking around the school playground. The research belies that stereotype and says the vast majority of child sexual abuse victims identify their abusers as family members or acquaintances. A Justice Department study in 2000 of police reports from 12 states found that only 7 percent of sexual assaults on children were perpetrated by strangers.

The data is similar for adult women victims: More than 70 percent of rapes and 85 percent of sexual assaults are carried out by people known to the victim.

This year, thanks to thoughtful leadership on the Judiciary Committee, the legislature resisted some laws that would have been easy “get-tough” targets, but not good policy. Next year, they have the chance to make things better.