20 YEARS OF FAILED SEX OFFENDER MANAGEMENT POLICY
Megan’s Law, which requires local law enforcement to collect and disclose details relating to the location of registered sex offenders, came to be 20 years ago in response to the terrible rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka, by a neighbor who was on the sex offender registry. The Adam Walsh Act (AWA), which took effect 10 years ago, was named after a six-year-old boy who was abducted from a department store and was later found murdered. In response, the AWA took Megan’s Law a step further, establishing the first national sex offender registry and setting standard criteria for posting offender data on the Internet.
The intent of these laws is that every parent should have the right to know if a dangerous sexual predator moves into their neighborhood. But if we are to end child sexual abuse, we must see through the false hopes of these regulations and ask some serious questions.
Opponents of Megan’s Law and the AWA, like Women Against Registry, Reform Sex Offender Laws, Inc., Human Rights Watch, and Arkansas Time After Time, assert that laws which mandate public registration and residency restrictions go overboard and invite vigilante violence. That the accumulated results of 20+ years of research find no statistically significant reduction in sex-crimes due to the implementation of Sex Offender Registration and Notification (SORN) regulations.
According to the Office of Justice Programs’ Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking (SMART) Office,”…the evidence is fairly clear that residence restrictions are not effective. In fact, the research suggests that residence restrictions may actually increase offender risk by undermining offender stability and the ability of the offender to obtain housing, work, and family support.” Also, that contrary to “broad public and policymaker support for SORN, and a perceived public safety benefit… there is nothing to suggest this policy should be used at this time.”
Those who exit prison too often find the road to healthy, happy reentry into free society paved with tremendous obstacles and pitfalls. (cartoon used by permission)
Treatment professionals, such as the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA), criticize these laws and decry the scientifically unsupported yet popular belief in high recidivism, and the unintended consequences of them which undermine, rather than improve, public safety by exacerbating homelessness, unemployment and social instability.
In addition, civil rights and reform organizations highlight the adverse collateral effects on the family members of registrants. They question that most registries are indefinite unwarranted punishment because sexual offense laws are applied not just to those who commit the unthinkable, but to a wide variety of offender groups such as juveniles and young adults engaging in consensual acts. Even the current chair of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Patty Wetterling, whose 11 year old son Jacob was abducted in 1989, has penned similar critique.
Factually, according to official government studies published by the U.S. Department of Justice, registered sex offenders have an extremely low recidivism rate, between 3.5 and 5%. Even an Arkansas Parole Board discussion on 29 September 2011, noted that sex crimes had some of the lowest rates of recidivism.
Our current sex offender management policy is simply doing the same thing over and over. Contrary to this “feel good” policy, what we need is policy that can actually protect families.
Now, on the 10 and 20 year anniversaries of the laws created in response to these unimaginably terrible crimes, we need to take a serious look at what we can do to truly make our communities safer places.
These laws were a knee-jerk response to the terrible fear all of us have concerning our children. The desire for retribution has slowly developed into a fear-mongering industry focused on profit. Companies throughout the US aggressively solicit parents to sign-up for their ‘alert and notification services’, hyping the debunked idea that a public registry or residency restrictions will somehow keep children safe.
If we consider the statistics that 95% of those now registered will never re-offend, that means that 95% of all future offenses will be committed by people who are NOT on any registry.
Knowing where registrants live lets us feel 95% safe, but it is an illusion built on fear and suspicion. I am advocating for caution and education.
Open up easy lines of communication with your kids. Teach them to be aware of situations that may prove dangerous. Tell them what to do when things don’t seem right. Insist that they ‘buddy up’ and go two-by-two. Make it clear to them that their bodies are private, and that they should always tell you if anyone – a mommy or daddy or teacher or doctor or family friend – wants to touch them in a ‘secret’ way. And remember, the vast majority of sexual offenses against children are committed by other children who, realistically, deserve guidance and therapeutic intervention but in our current system too often get prison time.
In Arkansas, the Sex Offender Community Notification Assessment (SOCNA) Program is responsible for determining the ‘risk level’ assigned to individuals on the registry. The assessment tools used are common through-out the nation, often employing voice stress analysis and polygraph tests.
Level 1 is low risk, Level 2 is medium, Level 3 is high risk and people assessed as a Level 4 are classified as sexually dangerous persons. Currently the state default is Level 3 or 4.
Currently a Level 3 sex offender, the most common Level in the state, is classified as presenting a ‘high risk’ of re-offending. Yet this same group of people has only a 5% recidivism rate.
Thus it would be more accurate and reasonable to classify Level 3 as ‘low risk’, with Levels 2 and 1 be-coming lower risk and lowest risk.
In addition to saving millions of dollars on the administration of systems which deliver no public good, if these classifications were more consistent with reality then fewer Arkansans would be falsely led to believe that predators are lurking behind every bush.
This would also have a beneficial effect on those who are reentering free society after confinement, making employers more amenable to hiring and, if residency restrictions were correspondingly adjusted, reducing homelessness. In order to legitimately serve our common well-being, laws must provide a reasonable method for those who have served their sentences to be able to restore their lives.
We need to shift the reentry burdens off of the individual registrant and onto the state. For example, after 5 years of good behavior by a person classified as Level 1 or 2, they should be automatically relieved of the obligation to register. For Level 3, it should be 10 years. And for Level 4s, it could be 15.
If on the other hand an offender has been convicted of multiple sex crimes and it has been shown by a preponderance of evidence that he or she continues to pose a serious threat to society, that person should be required to remain on the registry for the full 15 years. If the state cannot find cause for continued placement on the registry they should be removed.
20 years of these sex offender management policies have had no positive effect on child safety. Surely, we can use evidence based research to develop better methods.
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