Tuesday, October 16, 2007

No Easy Answers

Sex Offender Laws in the US


I. Summary

The reality is that sex offenders are a great political target, but that doesn’t mean any law under the sun is appropriate.

—Illinois State Representative John Fritchey1

People want a silver bullet that will protect their children, [but] there is no silver bullet. There is no simple cure to the very complex problem of sexual violence.

—Patty Wetterling, child safety advocate whose son was abducted in 1989 and remains missing2

What happened to nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford is every parent’s worst nightmare. In February 2005 she was abducted from her home in Florida, raped, and buried alive by a stranger, a next-door neighbor who had been twice convicted of molesting children. Over the past decade, several horrific crimes like Jessica’s murder have captured massive media attention and fueled widespread fears that children are at high risk of assault by repeat sex offenders. Politicians have responded with a series of laws, including the sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws that are the subject of this report.

Federal law and the laws of all 50 states now require adults and some juveniles convicted of specified crimes that involve sexual conduct to register with law enforcement—regardless of whether the crimes involved children. So-called “Megan’s Laws” establish public access to registry information, primarily by mandating the creation of online registries that provide a former offender’s criminal history, current photograph, current address, and other information such as place of employment. In many states everyone who is required to register is included on the online registry. A growing number of states and municipalities have also prohibited registered offenders from living within a designated distance (typically 500 to 2,500 feet) of places where children gather—for example, schools, playgrounds, and daycare centers.

Human Rights Watch appreciates the sense of concern and urgency that has prompted these laws. They reflect a deep public yearning for safety in a world that seems increasingly threatening. Every child has the right to live free from violence and sexual abuse. Promoting public safety by holding offenders accountable and by instituting effective crime prevention measures is a core governmental obligation.

Unfortunately, our research reveals that sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws are ill-considered, poorly crafted, and may cause more harm than good:

  • The registration laws are overbroad in scope and overlong in duration, requiring people to register who pose no safety risk;
  • Under community notification laws, anyone anywhere can access online sex offender registries for purposes that may have nothing to do with public safety. Harassment of and violence against registrants have been the predictable result;
  • In many cases, residency restrictions have the effect of banishing registrants from entire urban areas and forcing them to live far from their homes and families.

The evidence is overwhelming, as detailed in this report, that these laws cause great harm to the people subject to them. On the other hand, proponents of these laws are not able to point to convincing evidence of public safety gains from them. Even assuming some public safety benefit, however, the laws can be reformed to reduce their adverse effects without compromising that benefit. Registration laws should be narrowed in scope and duration. Publicly accessible online registries should be eliminated, and community notification should be accomplished solely by law enforcement officials. Blanket residency restrictions should be abolished.

[NOTE: The Human Rights Watch report is well documented and cited, often with linking footnotes to confirm the documentation.]

Sex Offender Recidivism: A Simple Question

Abstract (and PDF link)

This study examines sexual recidivism, as expressed by new charges or convictions for sexual offences, using the data from 10 follow-up studies of adult male sexual offenders (combined sample of 4,724). Results indicated that most sexual offenders do not re-offend sexually, that first-time sexual offenders are significantly less likely to sexually re-offend than those with previous sexual convictions, and that offenders over the age of 50 are less likely to re-offend than younger offenders. In addition, it was found that the longer offenders remained offence-free in the community the less likely they are to re-offend sexually. Data shows that rapists, incest offenders, “girl-victim” child molesters, and “boy-victim” child molesters recidivate at significantly different rates. These results challenge some commonly held beliefs about sexual recidivism and have implications for policies designed to manage the risk posed by convicted sexual offenders.


Just about everybody would like to know how often sexual offenders recidivate with another sexual offence. Concerned politicians, an engaged media, and worried parents often assume that the recidivism risk of sexual offenders is extremely high, and routinely ask those working with this population questions such as “all sex offenders do it again don’t they?” and “won’t they just do it again if you let them out?” Such questions are best answered by appealing to research evidence; first, however, it is important to carefully consider the question being asked.

A Simple Question

The basic question about sexual offender recidivism is usually phrased along the following lines: “what percentage of sexual offenders commit another sexual offence once they’ve been released from prison?” This question is not as easy to answer as one might believe. First, we must define “recidivism”. In some studies, recidivism is defined as a reconviction for a sexual offence (e.g., Hanson, Scott & Steffy, 1995). In other studies, recidivism includes all offenders who were charged with a new sexual offence, whether or not they were convicted (e.g., Song & Lieb, 1995). Including charges along with convictions should, of course, lead to higher estimates of recidivism (Prentky, Lee, Knight & Cerce, 1997). Other studies have used expanded definitions of sexual recidivism that include informal reports to child protection agencies, self-report, violations of conditional release conditions, and simply being questioned by police (e.g., Marshall & Barbaree, 1988). All else being equal, the estimated recidivism rate should increase with each expansion of the definition; the broader the definition, the larger the recidivism estimate should appear. Consequently, it is important to specify the recidivism criteria in any recidivism estimate (e.g., “what percentage of sexual offenders are either charged with, or convicted of, another sexual offence once they’ve been released from prison?”)

Another factor to consider is the length of the follow-up period. As the follow-up period increases, the cumulative number of recidivists can only increase. It is important to remember, however, that an increase in the number of recidivists is not the same as an increase in the yearly rate of recidivism. For all crimes (and almost all behaviours) the likelihood that the behaviour will reappear decreases the longer the person has abstained from that behaviour. The recidivism rate within the first two years after release from prison is much higher than the recidivism rate between years 10 and 12 after release from prison. Consequently, any estimate of sexual re-offending must be “time-defined” or “time limited” (e.g., “over the first five years, post-release from prison, what percentage of sexual offenders are either charged with, or convicted of, another sexual offence?”)

A third factor to consider is the diversity among sexual offenders. We know that incest offenders recidivate at a significantly lower rate than offenders who target victims outside the family (Hanson & Bussière, 1998). We also know that child molesters with male victims recidivate at a significantly higher rate than child molesters that only have girl victims (Hanson & Bussière, 1998). By considering the type of sexual offender, our simple question becomes, once again, more complex: (e.g., “over the first five years, post-release from prison, what percentage of child molesters with male victims are either charged with, or convicted of, another sexual offence?”)

Many sexual offences are never reported to police; this is the same for all violent offences except murder. Our best estimates of unreported sexual offending come from victimization studies. In a typical study a random sample of people are telephoned and asked if they have been a victim of a crime within the last year. One recent victimization study found that there were approximately half a million sexual assaults (499,000) committed in Canada in 1999 (Besserer & Trainor, 2000). Although reports to police of violent and sexual crimes were steadily declining in Canada between the years 1993 and 1999; the years 2000 and 2001 saw 1% increases in violent and sexual crimes (Savoie, 2002). Sexual victimization rates based upon victimization surveys appear to have remained basically unchanged across this same time period (Besserer & Trainor, 2000). The Besserer and Trainor (2000) study showed that sexual assault had the highest percentage of incidents that were not reported to police (78%). When respondents were asked why they did not report sexual victimization to the police, 59% of the respondents stated that the “incident was not important enough” to report. Consequently, readers may wonder what counts as a sexual assault.

The Besserer and Trainor (2000) victimization study used a very broad definition of sexual assault. They counted all attempts at forced sexual activity, all unwanted sexual touching, grabbing, kissing, and fondling, as well as threats of sexual assault (Jennifer Tuffs, personal communication, January 15, 2003). Their broad definition undoubtedly included some behaviours that do not conform to the popular image of a sexual offence.

All unwanted sexual advances are wrong, possibly criminal, and have the potential to do psychological harm to the victim. As a society, however, we need to decide whether we wish to count an unwanted touch on the buttocks as an unreported sexual crime. Coming to an agreement on what constitutes a sexual crime will be a difficult task. Setting the bar too low would criminalize social clumsiness and over-state the problem of sexual assault. Setting the bar too high would devalue those victims who, while sustaining no overt signs of trauma, may have truly suffered at the hands of a sexual assailant. A detailed examination of the relationship between observed and undetected sexual offences is beyond the scope of the current paper. Readers should be aware, however, that the answer to the simple question of sexual offence recidivism requires specifying the nature of the offences being considered. In the analyses that follow, recidivism is defined as sexual offences reported to police that are credible and sufficiently serious to justify charges or convictions.

The above review indicates that the simple question is not so simple. Rather than asking “how often do sexual offenders re-offend”; the informed reader would inquire about the recidivism rates of particular types of sexual offenders (e.g., incest offenders versus rapists for example), over a specific time period (e.g., 10 years) using a particular definition of recidivism (e.g., new convictions for a sexual offence). Failure to specify these distinctions can lead to wildly different estimates of the rate of sexual recidivism. The present study addresses the question of sexual offender recidivism using a large, diverse sample drawn from multiple jurisdictions. The combined sample is sufficiently large (4,724) that it is possible to calculate stable estimates of the observed recidivism rates after five, 10, and 15 years of follow-up for important subgroups of sexual offenders: rapists, girl victim child molesters, boy victim child molesters, incest offenders, those with or without a prior sexual offence, older offenders (age greater than 50 at release) and younger offenders. This study also provides recidivism estimates for sex offenders who have been offence-free in the community for 5, 10, and 15 years.

Key cites:

  • Results
  • Sexual recidivism was measured using the original definitions from the original research reports: 5 data sets used convictions, 4 data sets used new charges (or a new conviction), and one sample used convictions, charges, and additional police information (Manitoba). The five and 10 year recidivism estimates were 17% and 21% for the studies that used only convictions as their recidivism criteria, and 12% and 19% for the studies that used charges and convictions as their recidivism criteria. Given the similarity in the recidivism rates based on convictions alone and charges and convictions, the data was combined to provide overall estimates of sexual recidivism rates. The rates estimated using the combined sample would be closer to the reconviction rate than the re-arrest rate because it appeared that the sources used for the recidivism data contained relatively few charges that did not ultimately result in conviction.
  • Sexual recidivism rates
  • Table 2 summarises the recidivism estimates for three distinct time periods, five years, ten years, and fifteen years, for each of the subgroups examined. The overall recidivism rates (14% after 5 years, 20% after 10 years and 24% after 15 years) were similar for rapists (14%, 21% and 24%) and the combined group of child molesters (13%, 18%, and 23%). There were, however, significant differences between the child molesters, with the highest rates observed among the extrafamilial boy-victim child molesters (35% after 15 years) and the lowest observed rates for the incest offenders (13% after 15 years). Offenders with a prior sexual offence conviction had recidivism rates about double the rate observed for first-time sexual offenders (19% versus 37% after 15 years). Age also had a substantial association with recidivism, with offenders older than age 50 at release reoffending at half the rate of the younger (less than 50) offenders (12% versus 26%, respectively, after 15 years). As expected, those who have remained offence free in the community were at reduced risk for subsequent sexual recidivism. Whereas the average 10 year recidivism rate from time of release was 20%, the 10 year recidivism declined to 12% after five years offence-free and to 9% after 10 years offence-free. The five year recidivism rate for those who had been offence-free for 15 years was 4%. Offence-free was defined as no new sexual or violent non-sexual offence, and no non-violent offences serious enough that they are incarcerated at the end of the follow-up period.
  • Discussion
  • Most sexual offenders do not re-offend sexually over time. This may be the most important finding of this study as this finding is contrary to some strongly held beliefs. After 15 years, 73% of sexual offenders had not been charged with, or convicted of, another sexual offence. The sample was sufficiently large that very strong contradictory evidence is necessary to substantially change these recidivism estimates. Other studies have found similar results. Hanson and Bussière’s (1998) quantitative review of recidivism studies found an average recidivism rate of 13.4% after a follow-up period of 4-5 years (n = 23,393). In a recent U.S. study of 9,691 sex offenders, the sexual recidivism rate was only 5.3% after three years (Langan, Schmitt, & Durose, 2003).
  • Not all sexual offenders, however, were equally likely to reoffend. By using simple, easily observed characteristics, it was possible to differentiate between offenders whose five year recidivism rate was 5%, from those whose recidivism rate was 25%. The factors associated with increased risk were the following: a) male victims, b) prior sexual offences, and c) young age.
  • Although the number of recidivists increases with extended follow-up, the rate of offending decreases the longer offenders have been offence-free. The five year recidivism rate for new releases of 14% decreased to 4% for individuals who have been offence-free for 15 years. The observed rates underestimate the actual rates because not all sexual offences are detected; nevertheless, the current findings contrast with the popular notion that all sexual offender remain at risk throughout their lifespan.
  • The observed recidivism rates in the current study are slightly lower than the lifetime sexual recidivism rates estimated by Doren (1998) - 52% for child molesters and 39% for rapists. Doren’s estimates were largely based on long-term follow-up of highly selected samples (Hanson et al., 1995; Prentky, et al., 1997); in contrast, the current study used larger and more diverse samples, including many low risk offenders serving community sentences. Doren’s (1998) estimates were also based on charges, whereas most of the recidivism data in the current study was based on convictions.
  • Policy implications
    Although no finding is ever definitive, the basic findings of the current study are sufficiently reliable to have implications for criminal justice policy. Given that the level of sexual recidivism is lower than commonly believed, discussions of the risk posed by sexual offenders should clearly differentiate between the high public concern about these offences and the relatively low probability of sexual re-offence.

Ohio Recidivism Study

Ten-Year Recidivism Follow-Up Of 1989 Sex Offender Releases (PDF)

Key cites:


The baseline recidivism rate of sex offenders followed-up for ten years after release from prison was 34%. This rate was comprised of:

Recommitment for a New Crime 22.3 %

Sex Offense 8.0 %
Non-Sex Offense 14.3 %

Recommitment for a Technical Violation 11.7 %

Sex Offense 1.3 %
Sex Lapse 1.7 %
Non-sex Related 8.7 %

The total sex-related recidivism rate, including technical violations of supervision conditions, was 11.0%.

Recidivism rates differed considerably based on a victim typology:

Sex offender type...............General recidivism ......Sex recidivism

Rapists – (adult victims) ..........56.6% .............................. 17.5%
Child Molester – extrafamilial. . 29.2% ............................... 8.7%
Child Molester – incest .............13.2% ................................7.4%

Sex offenders who returned for a new sex related offense did so within a few years of release. Of all the sex offenders who came back to an Ohio prison for a new sex offense, one half did so within two years, and two-thirds within three years.

Paroled Sex offenders completing basic sex offender programming (level 1) while incarcerated appeared to have a somewhat lower recidivism rate than those who did not have programming. This was true both for recidivism of any type (33.9% with programming recidivated compared with 55.3% without programming) and sex-related recidivism (7.1% with programming recidivated compared with 16.5% without programming).

The Facts About Online Youth Victimization

Transcript before the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee (PDF)

Key cites:

  • I’d like to put this a little – this issue a little bit in context by thinking about it in terms of a variety of other kinds of threats that we get excited about as a society. And whenever any of these new threats suddenly bursts on the scene like school shooters, I think it’s just absolutely crucial that we characterize them accurately and as soon as possible. Because really, first impressions in a lot of these topics turn out to be the lasting impressions and it’s very hard to change people’s ideas about what’s going on after they’ve gotten one of these first impressions.
  • We need those impressions to be accurate, not just to prevent overreactions to some of these problems. But I think also to get people to do the right things prevent the spread of the dangers. Now, on the case of internet sex crimes against kids, I’m concerned
    that we’re already off to a bad start here. The public and the professional impression about what’s going on in these kinds of crimes is not in sync with the reality, at least so far as we can ascertain it on the basis of research that we’ve done. And this research has really been based on some large national studies of cases coming to the attention of law enforcement as well as to large national surveys of youth.
  • If you think about what the public impression is about this crime, it’s really that we have these internet pedophiles who’ve moved from the playground into your living room through the internet connection, who are targeting young children by pretending to be
    other children who are lying about their ages and their identities and their motives, who are tricking kids into disclosing personal information about themselves or harvesting that information from blogs or websites or social networking sites. Then armed with this information, these criminals stalk children. They abduct them. They rape them, or even worse.
  • But actually, the research in the cases that we’ve gleaned from actual law enforcement files, for example, suggests a different reality for these crimes. So first fact is that the predominant online sex crime victims are not young children. They are teenagers.
  • Our research, actually looking at what puts kids at risk for receiving the most serious kinds of sexual solicitation online, suggests that it’s not giving out personal information that puts kid at risk. It’s not having a blog or a personal website that does that either. What puts kids in danger is being willing to talk about sex online with strangers or having a pattern of multiple risky activities on the web like going to sex sites and chat rooms, meeting lots of people there, kind of behaving in what we call like an internet daredevil.
  • There’s almost no victims in the sample that we collected from – a representative sample of law enforcement cases that involved the child under the age of 13. In the predominant sex crime scenario, doesn’t involve violence, stranger molesters posing online as other children in order to set up an abduction or assault. Only five percent of these cases actually involved violence. Only three percent involved an abduction. It’s also interesting that deception does not seem to be a major factor. Only five percent of the offenders concealed the fact that they were adults from their victims. Eighty percent were quite explicit about
    their sexual intentions with the youth that they were communicating with.
  • So these are not mostly violence sex crimes, but they are criminal seductions that take advantage of teenage, common teenage vulnerabilities. The offenders lure teens after weeks of conversations with them, they play on teens’ desires for romance, adventure, sexual information, understanding, and they lure them to encounters that the teams know are sexual in nature with people who are considerably older than themselves.
  • So for example, Jenna – this is a pretty typical case – 13-year-old girl from a divorced family, frequented sex-oriented chat rooms, had the screen name “Evil Girl.” There she met a guy who, after a number of conversations, admitted he was 45. He flattered her, gave – sent her gifts, jewelry. They talked about intimate things. And eventually, he drove across several states to meet her for sex on several occasions in motel rooms. When he was arrested in her company, she was reluctant to cooperate with the law enforcement
    authorities. Many of these cases have commonalities with this particular instance. In seventy-three percent of the crimes, the youth go to meet the offender on multiple occasions for multiple sexual encounters. The law enforcement investigators described the victims as being in love with or feeling a close friendship for the offenders in half the cases that they investigated. In a quarter of the cases, the victims actually had run away from home to be with these adults that they met online.

Study: Fears over kids' online safety overblown

The NSBA surveyed 1,277 students aged 9 to 17, 1,039 parents, and 250 school administrators (PDF) with decision-making power over Internet policy.

Key cites:

  • Students and parents report fewer recent or current problems, such as cyberstalking, cyberbullying and unwelcome personal encounters, than school fears and policies seem to imply. Only a minority of students has had any kind of negative experience with social networking in the last three months; even fewer parents report that their children have had a negative experience over a longer, six-month period.
  • Most problems students and parents report are similar to the types of problems typically associated with any other media (television or popular music) or encountered in everyday life:
    • One in five students (20 percent) say they have seen inappropriate pictures on social networking sites in the last three months; 11 percent of parents, referring to their own children over the last six months, concur.
    • Nearly one in five students (18 percent) say they have seen inappropriate language on social networking sites; 16 percent of parents concur.
    • Personally directed incidents, which are of serious concern to students, parents and educators, are relatively rare. About one in 14 students (7 percent) say someone has asked them for information about their personal identity on a social networking site; 6 percent of parents concur. About one in 14 students (7 percent) say they’ve experienced selfdefined cyberbullying; 5 percent of parents concur. About one in 25 students (4 percent) say they’ve had conversations on social networking sites that made them uncomfortable; 3 percent of parents concur. Fewer than one in 30 students (3 percent) say unwelcome strangers have tried repeatedly to communicate with them online; 3 percent of parents concur. Only about one in 50 students (2 percent) say a stranger they met online tried to meet them in person; 2 percent of parents concur. Only .08 percent of all students say they’ve actually met someone in person from an online encounter without their parents’ permission. The vast majority of students, then, seem to be living by the online safety behaviors they learn at home and at school.
  • School district leaders seem to believe that negative experiences with social networking are more common than students and parents report. For example, more than half of districts (52 percent) say that students providing personal information online has been “a significant problem” in their schools, yet only 3 percent of students say they’ve ever given out their e-mail addresses, instant messaging screen names or other personal information to strangers. Similar differences occur between districts’ beliefs and students’ and parents’ reported experiences with inappropriate material, cyberbullying and other negative incidents.
  • See also
    Study: Fears over kids' online safety overblown

    By Eric Bangeman | Published: August 08, 2007 - 12:17PM CT

Predator Panic: A Closer Look

Predator Panic: A Closer Look (HTML link)
Skeptical Inquirer magazine : September 2006 : Buy back issue


Benjamin Radford

Key cites:

  • An Epidemic?

    To many people, sex offenders pose a serious and growing threat—especially on the Internet. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has made them a top priority this year, launching raids and arrest sweeps. According to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, “the danger to teens is high.” On the April 18, 2005, CBS Evening News broadcast, correspondent Jim Acosta reported that “when a child is missing, chances are good it was a convicted sex offender.” (Acosta is incorrect: If a child goes missing, a convicted sex offender is among the least likely explanations, far behind runaways, family abductions, and the child being lost or injured.) On his NBC series “To Catch a Predator,” Dateline reporter Chris Hansen claimed that “the scope of the problem is immense,” and “seems to be getting worse.” Hansen claimed that Web predators are “a national epidemic,” while Alberto Gonzales stated that there are 50,000 potential child predators online.

    Sex offenders are clearly a real threat, and commit horrific crimes. Those who prey on children are dangerous, but how common are they? How great is the danger? After all, there are many dangers in the world—from lightning to Mad Cow Disease to school shootings—that are genuine but very remote. Let’s examine some widely repeated claims about the threat posed by sex offenders.

  • One in Five?

    According to a May 3, 2006, ABC News report, “One in five children is now approached by online predators.” This alarming statistic is commonly cited in news stories about prevalence of Internet predators, but the factoid is simply wrong. The “one in five statistic” can be traced back to a 2001 Department of Justice study issued by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“The Youth Internet Safety Survey”) that asked 1,501 American teens between 10 and 17 about their online experiences. Anyone bothering to actually read the report will find a very different picture. Among the study’s conclusions: “Almost one in five (19 percent) . . . received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year.” (A “sexual solicitation” is defined as a “request to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information that were unwanted or, whether wanted or not, made by an adult.” Using this definition, one teen asking another teen if her or she is a virgin—or got lucky with a recent date—could be considered “sexual solicitation.”) Not a single one of the reported solicitations led to any actual sexual contact or assault. Furthermore, almost half of the “sexual solicitations” came not from “predators” or adults but from other teens—in many cases the equivalent of teen flirting. When the study examined the type of Internet “solicitation” parents are most concerned about (e.g., someone who asked to meet the teen somewhere, called the teen on the telephone, or sent gifts), the number drops from “one in five” to just 3 percent.

    This is a far cry from an epidemic of children being “approached by online predators.” As the study noted, “The problem highlighted in this survey is not just adult males trolling for sex. Much of the offending behavior comes from other youth [and] from females.” Furthermore, “Most young people seem to know what to do to deflect these sexual ‘come ons.’” The reality is far less grave than the ubiquitous “one in five” statistic suggests.

  • Recidivism Revisited

    Much of the concern over sex offenders stems from the perception that if they have committed one sex offense, they are almost certain to commit more. This is the reason given for why sex offenders (instead of, say, murderers or armed robbers) should be monitored and separated from the public once released from prison. While it’s true that serial sex offenders (like serial killers) are by definition likely to strike again, the reality is that very few sex offenders commit further sex crimes.

    The high recidivism rate among sex offenders is repeated so often that it is accepted as truth, but in fact recent studies show that the recidivism rates for sex offenses is not unusually high. According to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study (“Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994”), just five percent of sex offenders followed for three years after their release from prison in 1994 were arrested for another sex crime. A study released in 2003 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that within three years, 3.3 percent of the released child molesters were arrested again for committing another sex crime against a child. Three to five percent is hardly a high repeat offender rate.

    In the largest and most comprehensive study ever done of prison recidivism, the Justice Department found that sex offenders were in fact less likely to reoffend than other criminals. The 2003 study of nearly 10,000 men convicted of rape, sexual assault, and child molestation found that sex offenders had a re-arrest rate 25 percent lower than for all other criminals. Part of the reason is that serial sex offenders—those who pose the greatest threat—rarely get released from prison, and the ones who do are unlikely to re-offend. If released sex offenders are in fact no more likely to re-offend than murderers or armed robbers, there seems little justification for the public’s fear and the monitoring laws targeting them. (Studies also suggest that sex offenders living near schools or playgrounds are no more likely to commit a sex crime than those living elsewhere.)

    While the abduction, rape, and killing of children by strangers is very, very rare, such incidents receive a lot of media coverage, leading the public to overestimate how common these cases are. (See John Ruscio’s article “Risky Business: Vividness, Availability, and the Media Paradox” in the March/April 2000 Skeptical Inquirer.)

    Why the Hysteria?

    There are several reasons for the hysteria and fear surrounding sexual predators. The predator panic is largely fueled by the news media. News stories emphasize the dangers of Internet predators, convicted sex offenders, pedophiles, and child abductions. The Today Show, for example, ran a series of misleading and poorly designed hidden camera “tests” to see if strangers would help a child being abducted. [1] Dateline NBC teamed up with a group called Perverted Justice to lure potential online predators to a house with hidden cameras. The program’s ratings were so high that it spawned six follow-up “To Catch a Predator” specials. While the many men captured on film supposedly showing up to meet teens for sex is disturbing, questions have been raised about Perverted Justice’s methods and accuracy. (For example, the predators are often found in unmoderated chatrooms frequented by those looking for casual sex—hardly places where most children spend their time.) Nor is it surprising that out of over a hundred million Internet users, a fraction of a percentage might be caught in such a sting.

    Because there is little hard data on how widespread the problem of Internet predators is, journalists often resort to sensationalism, cobbling a few anecdotes and interviews together into a trend while glossing over data suggesting that the problem may not be as widespread as they claim. But good journalism requires that personal stories—no matter how emotional and compelling—must be balanced with facts and context. Much of the news coverage about sexual predation is not so much wrong as incomplete, lacking perspective.

  • Moral Panics

    The news media’s tendency toward alarmism only partly explains the concern. America is in the grip of a moral panic over sexual predators, and has been for many months. A moral panic is a sociological term describing a social reaction to a false or exaggerated threat to social values by moral deviants. (For more on moral panics, see Ehrich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda’s 1994 book Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance.)

    In a discussion of moral panics, sociologist Robert Bartholomew points out that a defining characteristic of the panics is that the “concern about the threat posed by moral deviants and their numerical abundance is far greater than can be objectively verified, despite unsubstantiated claims to the contrary.” Furthermore, according to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, during a moral panic “most of the figures cited by moral panic ‘claims-makers’ are wildly exaggerated.”

    Indeed, we see exactly this trend in the panic over sexual predators. News stories invariably exaggerate the true extent of sexual predation on the Internet; the magnitude of the danger to children, and the likelihood that sexual predators will strike. (As it turns out, Attorney General Gonzales had taken his 50,000 Web predator statistic not from any government study or report, but from NBC’s Dateline TV show. Dateline, in turn, had broadcast the number several times without checking its accuracy. In an interview on NPR’s On the MediaWall Street Journal program, Hansen admitted that he had no source for the statistic, and stated that “It was attributed to, you know, law enforcement, as an estimate, and it was talked about as sort of an extrapolated number.”) According to writer Carl Bialik, journalists “often will use dubious numbers to advance that goal [of protecting children] . . . one of the reasons that this is allowed to happen is that there isn’t really a natural critic. . . . Nobody really wants to go on the record saying, ‘It turns out this really isn’t a big problem.’”

  • Panicky Laws

    Besides needlessly scaring children and the public, there is a danger to this quasi-fabricated, scare-of-the-week reportage: misleading news stories influence lawmakers, who in turn react with genuine (and voter-friendly) moral outrage. Because nearly any measure intended (or claimed) to protect children will be popular and largely unopposed, politicians trip over themselves in the rush to endorse new laws that “protect the children.”

    Politicians, child advocates, and journalists denounce current sex offender laws as ineffective and flawed, yet are rarely able to articulate exactly why new laws are needed. Instead, they cite each news story about a kidnapped child or Web predator as proof that more laws are needed, as if sex crimes would cease if only the penalties were harsher, or enough people were monitored. Yet the fact that rare crimes continue to be committed does not necessarily imply that current laws against those crimes are inadequate. By that standard, any law is ineffective if someone violates that law. We don’t assume that existing laws against murder are ineffective simply because murders continue to be committed.

    In July 2006, teen abduction victim Elizabeth Smart and child advocate John Walsh (whose murdered son Adam spawned America’s Most Wanted) were instrumental in helping pass the most extensive national sex offender bill in history. According to Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the bill’s sponsor, Smart’s 2002 “abduction by a convicted sex offender” might have been prevented had his bill been law. “I don’t want to see others go through what I had to go through,” said Smart. “This bill should go through without a thought.” Yet bills passed without thought rarely make good laws. In fact, a closer look at the cases of Elizabeth Smart and Adam Walsh demonstrate why sex offender registries do not protect children. Like most people who abduct children, Smart’s kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, was not a convicted sex offender. Nor was Adam Walsh abducted by a sex offender.
  • Tragic Misdirection

    The issue is not whether children need to be protected; of course they do. The issues are whether the danger to them is great, and whether the measures proposed will ensure their safety. While some efforts—such as longer sentences for repeat offenders—are well-reasoned and likely to be effective, those focused on separating sex offenders from the public are of little value because they are based on a faulty premise. Simply knowing where a released sex offender lives—or is at any given moment—does not ensure that he or she won’t be near potential victims. Since relatively few sexual assaults are committed by released sex offenders, the concern over the danger is wildly disproportionate to the real threat. Efforts to protect children are well-intentioned, but legislation should be based on facts and reasoned argument instead of fear in the midst of a national moral panic.

    The tragic irony is that the panic over sex offenders distracts the public from the real danger, a far greater threat to children than sexual predators: parental abuse and neglect. The vast majority of crimes against children are committed not by released sex offenders but instead by the victim’s own family, church clergy, and family friends. According to a 2003 report by the Department of Human Services, hundreds of thousands of children are abused and neglected each year by their parents and caregivers, and more than 1,500 American children died from that abuse in 2003—most of the victims under four years old. That is more than four children killed per day—not by convicted sexual offenders or Internet predators, but by those entrusted to care for them. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a stranger.”

Monday, October 15, 2007

Registration and Notification


Key cites:

  • Because sex offender laws are relatively new, research examining the efficacy of these laws is limited. Using time series analysis, this study examines sex offender registration and notification laws in the United States. The goal of this study was to examine the general deterrent nature of these laws on the number of sex offenses committed as measured by the increase of decrease in the number of rapes. Hanson and Bussiere (1998) conducted a meta-analysis of studies on sex offender recidivism. From an international sample of 87 research projects (representing 28,972 sex offenders), the average recidivism rate for sex offenses was only 13.4%, while the average recidivism rate for any offense was 36.3%. Findings on offender characteristics showed that only age and marital status predicted sex offense recidivism. This was particularly true if an offender had prior sexual offenses, victimized strangers, had an extrafamilial victim, began offending at an early age, had a male victim, or had engaged in diverse sexual crimes. General recidivists (sex offenders who committed new crimes that are non-sexual in nature) were those most likely to have used force against their victims and less likely to have chosen child victims. Hanson and Bussiere (1998, 357) argued that their findings “contradict the popular view that sexual offenders inevitably reoffend. . . even in studies with thorough searches and long follow-up periods the recidivism rate almost never exceeded 40%.”
  • Walker and McLarty (2000) examined the characteristics of sex offenders on the Arkansas sex offender registry from 1997 to 1999; from this, they were able to describe the characteristics of offenders in the Arkansas’ registry. . . . Most importantly, in relation to recidivism, sex offenders were predominantly first time offenders (73% of sample). This could indicate that this was the sex offender’s first time offending or that this was the offender’s first offense that resulted in arrest.
    • Sample (2001) explored the social construction of sex offenders and sex offender registration laws in Illinois. She did this by incorporating a three-pronged analysis. Sample performed a content analysis of three newspapers, interviewed policy makers, and analyzed police arrest records in an effort to compare common media and policy maker beliefs.
    • Between 1991 and 1998, Sample (2001, 34) noted a 128% increase in articles pertaining to sex offenders and offending. From the articles examined, Sample (2001, 66) found that sex offenders were portrayed as men in their mid-thirties, there was a lack of information on the race and social class of the offender, offenders were compulsive, the sex crimes themselves appeared to be changing (child pornography, pedophilia, and cyberporn), and the victims were portrayed as the innocent, the aged, and the infirm. The increase in these types of articles gives the public the impression of a growing sex offender problem (Sample, 2001, 69).
    • Sample then observed the relationship between media driven perceptions and the policy making process. Sample interviewed 35 legislators from Illinois. Of these 35 policy makers, only four were confident that sex offender registration and notification laws were effective; however, nearly all of the sample agreed “that current sex offender legislation . . . successfully addressed the public’s demand for action”(Sample 2001, 96). For these public officials, “the media indirectly influenced the enactment of sex offender legislation by affecting the public’s perceptions” and the media directly influenced policy making because the politicians “freely admit that the media serve as their major source of information”(Sample 2001, 99).
    • Sample (2001) then examined aggregate data sources to examine further the relationship between media accounts and policy maker legislation. She found that from 1990 to 1997, sex offenders represented only 1.2% of the total criminal charges in Illinois, and the number of sex offenses remained stable over this time period. The typical offender illustrated in the data was male, of no discernable race, and similar in age to other types of offenders. Most importantly, sex offenders did not re-offend at a higher rate than other types of offenders, which goes against the commonly held perceptions of the public.
    • When examining sex offenders who committed only sex offenses, Sample (2001) found that the majority of crimes included adult victims, not adolescent victims as popularly portrayed in the media. More importantly, sex offenders of any type (rapists, pedophiles, etc.) had greater than a 6% re-arrest rate within 5 years of the same offense but most sex offenders were not re-arrested for a sex offense. Finally, sex offenders “with child victims had lower rates of re-arrest for any sex crime than those who victimized adults, the one exception being child pornographers”(2001, 162).
  • Research seems to indicate that sex offenders are not any more likely to recidivate than other types of offenders. It is important to note the homogeneity between sex offender recidivism and other offender type recidivism. The perception that sex offenders pose a higher risk of recidivism than other types of offenders formed the backdrop of the movement for sex offender registration and notification legislation. With this fact in mind, the next section examines studies that have been conducted on the effectiveness of registration and notification laws themselves.
  • The key finding of this research is that the passage of sex offender registration and notification laws have had no systematic influence on the number of rapes committed in these states as a whole. Most of the states in our sample (five of ten) showed no significant differences (increase or decrease) in the average number of rapes committed before and after the sex offender laws. These non-significant findings masked the fact that roughly half of these non-significant changes were actually increases in the average incidence of rape within a given state. Of the states (four of the ten states) that did indicate statistically significant findings, three of these states experienced a decrease in the number of rapes after the implementation of the laws. The fourth state, however, actually illustrated a steep, statistically significant increase in the number of rapes committed.

California Study on Residency Restrictions

The Impact of Residency Restrictions on Sex Offenders and Correctional Management Practices: A Literature Review. (PDF)

NOTE: This study has a misleading definition of "sex offender" and quotes Penal Code section 288 (a) (b), which is child molestation. The Penal Code section 290 requirement to register is far broader than only child molestation. The California public should also note there can be a tremendous difference in a crime depending on the parentheses in the code (288 (a) compared to 288a, for example.)

Key cites:

  • Each year there are 60,000 to 70,000 arrests on charges of child sexual assault, according to the U.S. Justice Department, of which only about 115 are abductions by strangers. In addition, there are 15,000 to 20,000 arrests on charges of forcible rape. Most rape victims know their assailants: seven in ten female rape or sexual assault victims state the offender was an intimate, other relative, a friend or an acquaintance.
  • On average, recidivism rates for all types of sex offenders are lower than for other offenders. In California, for example, the parole revocation rate (within a two-year period after release) for all first time parolees convicted of non-sex offenses was 55 percent between 1996 and 2005, while the parole revocation rate for all categories of first time parolee sex offenders was 45 percent. Rapists are likely to recidivate at a higher rate (18.9 percent) than are child molesters (12.7 percent), according to a meta-analysis of 79 studies. Given the serious nature of sex offenses, and their life-long impact on victims, even a low re-offending rate may be too high.
  • One concern is that local residency restrictions may force sex offenders to move from one community to the next, in a competitive spiral of tougher “not in my backyard” ordinances. Unfortunately there is little research regarding the effectiveness of restricting the housing locations available to sex offenders, but the few studies available find they have no impact on re-offense rates.
  • Washington State, which enacted a sex offender notification law in 1990, is the only state to have researched the efficacy of its notification law. The state found no reduction in sex crimes against children. However, the evaluation found a benefit in the increased level of community education about sex crimes, the various types of sex offenders, and the degree of risk they pose.
  • Advocates believe that residency restrictions diminish the likelihood that sex offenders will come in contact with children whom they might victimize. However, there is little research-based evidence that residency restrictions actually reduce recidivistic sexual violence. Some research suggests that residency restrictions may lead to serious unintended collateral consequences for offenders, such as limiting their opportunities for employment, treatment services, pro-social support systems, and most importantly, housing.
  • Some states have expressed doubts about the laws’ effectiveness. Minnesota and Colorado considered passing residency restriction laws, but decided against it after commissioning studies. Colorado researchers found that molesters who re-offended while under supervision did not live closer than non-recidivists to schools or child-care centers. They also found that placing restrictions on the location of supervised sex offender’s residences did not deter the sex offender from re-offending and was not effective in controlling sexual offending recidivism. Most importantly, the research found that sex offenders who had a positive support system in their lives had significantly lower recidivism rates and fewer rule violations than offenders who had negative or no support.
  • According to a Minnesota Department of Corrections report, residency restrictions create a shortage of housing options for sex offenders and force them to move to rural areas where they are likely to become increasingly isolated with few employment opportunities, a lack of social support, and limited availability of social services and mental health treatment. Such restrictions can lead to homelessness and transience, which interfere with effective tracking, monitoring, and close probationary supervision.
  • The most serious of sex offenders (13 level-III offenders) who were released in Minnesota between 1997 and 1999, and were re-arrested for committing new sex offenses, did not reside at the time of their arrests within 2,500 feet of schools or parks. The study did not provide re-arrest information for the less serious sex offenders.
  • In Florida, a 2004 survey of sex offenders found that half of the respondents reported that residency restrictions had forced them to move from a residence in which they were living, and 25 percent were unable to return to their residence after their conviction (see Table 3 below). Nearly half reported that residence restrictions prevented them from living with supportive family members. The surveyed sex offenders did not perceive residency restrictions as helpful in risk management, and in fact reported that such restrictions inadvertently increased their psychosocial stress, which can lead to recidivism. At that time, housing restrictions in Florida were enforced by special conditions of sex offender probation with a restriction zone of 1,000 feet. It is likely that hardships related to housing increase with larger exclusionary zones.
  • A 2001 risk-assessment study by Virginia’s Criminal Sentencing Commission found employment to be a major factor affecting whether paroled sex offenders relapse and re-offend. The study of 579 paroled sex offenders over a five year-period found that an
    offender’s record of employment for the previous two years was correlated with the likelihood of recidivism. Sex offenders who had been unemployed or not regularly employed (i.e., employed with a full-time job at least 75 percent of the time) were found to recidivate at higher rates than sex offenders who experienced stable employment.
  • Research in Colorado suggests that sex offenders with positive, informed support (stable housing and social support) have significantly lower criminal and technical violations than sex offenders who had negative or no support (such as friend, family, or roomate who negatively influence the offender or refuse to cooperate with the authorities).
  • In general, people do not want to live near a sex offender. A study conducted in May 2006 by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that when a sex offender moves into a neighborhood, values of homes within a tenth of a mile drop an average of four percent.
This is an excellent study with a comprehensive summary of the laws in the varied states with a discussion of potential constitutional conflicts.

The Iowa Sex Offender Registry And Recidivism

Few studies have addressed the impact of a Sex Offender Registry program on recidivism rates or other variables. It was the purpose of this first study to examine and compare two groups of individuals to determine what effect, if any, the requirement to register as a sex offender had on recidivism rates over a 3-4 year period. (PDF)

Key cites:

  • It appears that sex offense recidivism is relatively low when compared to other reoffenses. Several studies report recidivism rates for sex offenders as high as 45 percent but report recidivism for new sex crimes between three to seven percent (Arizona Department of Corrections, 1999, Eisenberg, 1997, Motiuk & Brown, 1996, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, 1996). The majority of reoffenses included other violent crimes, property offenses and/or probation or parole violations. Most of the studies reviewed used a time frame of 3-5 years for follow-up.
  • What follow-up period is adequate is not easily determined, as most recidivism research fails to go beyond three to five years. However, the Arizona Department of Corrections in 1999 published a fact sheet that outlined the rate of recidivism for new sex offenses by year after release using one to seven years. They found that the majority (79 percent) of recidivists committing new sex offenses did so within the first three years after release. On the other hand, Hanson (1992), in his long-term follow-up study of child molesters, found the greatest risk of recidivism to be between five and ten years from the convicted offense. The Hanson report also stated that 23 percent of the recidivists were reconvicted more than ten years after they were released. Clearly, time to recidivate will be one of the issues to be addressed in future research. [The statistic suggest a more rational basis for the registry would be to use it for leverage, to do follow-up therapy every 3 years or so as a reminder of the trauma and suffering the offense caused. If the person fails to follow-up, then his/her information could be published on the Internet. Treatment works (PDF).]
  • The key issue in studies of recidivism is the rate at which offenders continue behavior that placed them in the criminal justice system in the first place. Recidivism among sex offenders is perceived as a critical issue because of the possible consequences to the general public. It should not be assumed that all offenses committed by sex offenders are sex crimes. In a separate study of prison release recidivism, records indicated that of the 136 sex offenders released from prison in the state fiscal year 1996, slightly over two percent were convicted of sex crimes during a 3.83 year follow-up period.
  • The present study was designed to compare and contrast pre- and post-Sex Offender Registry samples and to identify differences that may be related to the development of the Registry. In order to capture a clearer picture of the behavior of sex offenders following the qualifying offense, multiple definitions of recidivism were included.
  • For the purpose of this study, recidivism was defined as:
    · Reconviction for any sex crime
    · Reconviction for any non-sex crime
    · Revocation of parole or probation
  • Sex-offense recidivism was low at 3.0 percent for the registry sample and 3.5 percent for the preregistry sample. The recidivism rate, including both sex-offense and non-sex-offense convictions, was 24.5 percent for the entire registry sample and 33.3 percent for the entire preregistry sample. The differences in recidivism were not found to be statistically significant.

United States Bureau of Justice Statistics

Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994 (PDF)

In 1994, prisons in 15 States released 9,691 male sex offenders. The 9,691 men are two-thirds of all the male sex offenders released from State prisons in the United States in 1994. This report summarizes findings from a survey that tracked the 9,691 for 3 full years after their release. The report documents their “recidivism,” as measured by rates of rearrest, reconviction, and reimprisonment during the 3-year followup period.

This report gives recidivism rates for the 9,691 combined total. It also separates the 9,691 into four overlapping categories and gives recidivism rates for each category:
  • 3,115 released rapists
  • 6,576 released sexual assaulters
  • 4,295 released child molesters
  • 443 released statutory rapists.
The 9,691 sex offenders were released from State prisons in these 15 States: Arizona, Maryland, North Carolina, California, Michigan, Ohio, Delaware, Minnesota, Oregon, Florida, New Jersey, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Virginia.

Key cites:

  • Of the 9,691 released sex offenders, 3.5% (339 of the 9,691) were reconvicted for a sex crime within the 3-year followup period.
  • Compared to non-sex offenders released from State prisons, released sex offenders were 4 times more likely to be rearrested for a sex crime. Within the first 3 years following their release from prison in 1994, 5.3% (517 of the 9,691) of released sex offenders were rearrested for a sex crime. The rate for the 262,420 released non-sex offenders was lower, 1.3% (3,328 of 262,420).
  • NOTE: Those released for a sex offense were responsible for 13% of the sex crimes committed the by the total released from prison. Put another way, non-sex offender parolees were responsible for 87% of the sex offenses. However, sex offenders [are] predominantly first time offenders (73% of sample, PDF) so cracking down on all parolees would not prevent the vast majority of sexual offending.
  • The study compared recidivism rates among prisoners who served different lengths of time before being released from prison in 1994. No clear association was found between how long they were in prison and their recidivism rate.
  • Before being released from prison in 1994, most of the sex offenders had been arrested several times for different types of crimes. The more prior arrests they had, the greater their likelihood of being rearrested for another sex crime after leaving prison. Released sex offenders with 1 prior arrest (the arrest for the sex crime for which they were imprisoned) had the lowest rearrest rate for a sex crime, about 3%; those with 2 or 3 prior arrests for some type of crime, 4%; 4 to 6 prior arrests, 6%; 7 to 10 prior arrests, 7%; and 11 to 15 prior arrests, 8%.
  • Compared to the 9,691 sex offenders and to the 262,420 non-sex offenders, released child molesters were more likely to be rearrested for child molesting. Within the first 3 years following release from prison in 1994, 3.3% (141 of 4,295) of released child molesters were rearrested for another sex crime against a child. The rate for all 9,691 sex offenders (a category that includes the 4,295 child molesters) was 2.2% (209 of 9,691). The rate for all 262,420 non-sex offenders was less than half of 1% (1,042 of the 262,420). [Again, when counting the total number of child molestation crimes, non-sex offenders had the majority (1,042 compared to 209.
  • Released child molesters with more than 1 prior arrest for child molesting were more likely to be rearrested for child molesting (7.3%) than released child molesters with no more than 1 such prior arrest (2.4%).
  • Of the 9,691 released sex offenders, 24% (2,326 of the 9,691) were reconvicted for a new offense. The reconviction offense included all types of crimes.
  • Compared to non-sex offenders released from State prison, sex offenders had a lower overall rearrest rate. When rearrests for any type of crime (not just sex crimes) were counted, the study found that 43% (4,163 of 9,691) of the 9,691 released sex offenders were rearrested. The overall rearrest rate for the 262,420 released non-sex offenders was higher, 68% (179,391 of 262,420).
  • Within 3 years following their release, 38.6% (3,741) of the 9,691 released sex offenders were returned to prison. They were returned either because they received another prison sentence for a new crime, or because of a technical violation of their parole, such as failing a drug test, missing an appointment with their parole officer, or being arrested for another crime.
  • The 9,691 released men were all violent sex offenders. They are called “violent” because the crimes they were imprisoned for are widely defined in State statutes as “violent” sex offenses. “Violent” means the offender used or threatened force in the commission of the crime or, while not actually using force, the offender did not have the victim’s “factual” or “legal” consent. Factual consent means that, for physical reasons, the victim did not give consent, such as when the offender had intercourse with a sedated hospital patient or with a woman who had fallen unconscious from excessive drug taking. “Legal” consent means that the victim willingly participated but, in the eyes of the law, the victim was not old enough or not sufficiently mentally capable (perhaps due to mental illness or mental retardation) to give his or her “legal” consent.
  • State statutes give many different names to violent sex offenses: “forcible rape,” “statutory rape,” “object rape,” “sexual assault,” “sexual abuse,” “forcible sodomy,” “sexual misconduct,” “criminal sexual conduct,” “lascivious conduct,” “carnal abuse,” “sexual contact,” “unlawful sexual intercourse,” “sexual battery,” “unlawful sexual activity,” “lewd act with minor,” “indecent liberties with a child,” “carnal knowledge of a child,” “incest with a minor,” and “child molesting.” “Violent” sex offenses are distinguished from “nonviolent” sex offenses and from “commercialized sex offenses.”
    • Nonviolent sex offenses include morals and decency offenses (for example, indecent exposure and peeping tom), bestiality and other unnatural acts, adultery, incest between adults, and bigamy. Commercialized sexual offenses include prostitution, pimping, and pornography. As used throughout this report, the terms “sex crimes” and “sex offenders” refer exclusively to violent sex offenses.
  • Among inmates who were in prison for a sex crime against a child, the child was the prisoner’s own child or stepchild in a third of the cases. Seven percent of the inmates reported their child victims to have been strangers. Among adult victims, 34% were
    strangers to their attacker.

About Me

This blog is meant for those who need a place to quickly find accurate and cited facts with (almost) no opinion. The research posted does of course cite other evidence-based research that is current. For an interesting take on "Just the facts, Ma'am," see the truth.