All Sex Offenders Are Not Equal

April 5, 2010

articles.courant.com: 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.

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