Wednesday, May 03, 2006

"No more sex offender registries: Despite the rhetoric, they don't protect us"

From the Valley News:

No more sex offender registries
Despite the rhetoric, they don't protect us

The impulse to post the names, pictures and locations of sex offenders on public registries is understandable. That doesn't make it smart, or right. Rather than continue efforts to showcase or expand online registries, political leaders should take a genuinely courageous step and shut them down.

Aside from murder, no crimes are more repugnant than rape, child molestation and other forms of sexual assault. Sex offenders deserve criminal punishment and social reprobation. In many cases, no amount of jail time can repair the damage they do to victims, families and communities.

The entire premise of public registries, however, is wrong. While supporters say they give people an important tool to prevent sexual abuse, the facts suggest they provide an illusion of safety - and may, in fact, make offenders more likely to commit new crimes by consigning them to social isolation.

When murderers, armed robbers and other criminals do their prison time, they are considered to have paid their debt and are allowed to re-enter society without being listed on a registry. Not so sex offenders. In New Hampshire, all offenders convicted of sexually abusing children find their names, pictures and addresses posted to a state website when they return to the community. In Vermont, a smaller group of high-risk offenders is posted (with towns, not specific street addresses), although lawmakers may double that list's size.

Supporters of registries argue that the public needs to know about predatory strangers moving in nearby. Also, sex offenders will inevitably seek out new victims, they say. Both arguments hold great emotional and political appeal.

Neither is backed by the facts.

Sex offenders are almost never strangers to their victims. According to a Valley News analysis of statistics and studies, at least 97 percent of sex offenders in both states were relatives, friends or acquaintances of their victims. In other words, most victims and their families didn't need to fear a predator lurking in the shadows; the abuser had a familiar face.

And while politicians have tried to score political points by asserting that sex offenders almost invariably re-offend, the facts again contradict that claim.

While some hard-core offenders have alarming recidivism rates, experts say that the most common type of sex criminal - one who grooms a victim known to him - is far less likely to re-offend once returned to a now-vigilant circle of family and friends. Further, sex criminals who undergo treatment re-offend at sharply lower rates. (For detailed figures, go to and click on Sex Crimes: Fears & Facts.)

No second chances

Even as offender registries fail to live up to their justification, they can create new risks. The most dramatic is vigilantism, a point illustrated most recently in Maine, where Stephen Marshall looked up the addresses of two sex offenders and shot them dead.

There have been other instances of vigilante justice, some close to home: A man mistaken for his sex-offender brother was nearly beaten to death with a baseball bat in New Jersey, the state that began the nationwide move to internet registries after 7-year-old Megan Kanka was killed by a neighbor. A New Hampshire man stabbed a man and lit fires in two buildings in Concord occupied by convicted sex offenders. Last May in Lebanon, a man knocked on the door of a registered sex offender and punched him in the face.

A more insidious problem is ostracism. Even with the harsher sentences under consideration in New Hampshire and Vermont, most offenders eventually will return to our communities. When they do, the odds of them leading productive lives will depend on their ability to find jobs, reunite with family and friends, and win a place in society.

That goal is thwarted by the public registries. In recent weeks, two high-profile offenders have emerged from prison and returned to the Upper Valley, only to find themselves shunned. To be sure, Thomas Pellerin and Leon Colbeth have earned a measure of enmity and fear; they not only committed sexual assaults but also failed to participate in treatment programs while in prison. But what are the odds of them becoming law-abiding members of the community if nobody will afford them a peaceful place to live and work?

Rather than use public registries to create a new form of scarlet letter, officials would do well to focus on the traditional way of keeping tabs on potentially dangerous criminals - sharing their names with local police officials and conducting criminal background checks for those applying for jobs involving children or other vulnerable people.

Another productive approach would be to follow the lead of the Upper Valley's Women's Information Service in helping to educate children and adults about how to respond when someone - stranger, relative or friend - crosses the line. No system, public or private, can eliminate all risks. But a heightened awareness can significantly reduce them.

If New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas and other political leaders want to do more than simply score cheap political points in an election year, they should use their bully pulpits to inform the public about the real risks of sex offenders - and the frightening consequences of banishing them to the fringes.

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The referenced link follows:

Sex Offenses: Evidence Is In; Jury Still Out

Perceptions, Not Facts, Often Shape Society's Response

By Kristen Fountain — Valley News Staff Writer

It is every parent's nightmare: There are people out there — strangers living down the street, lurking near the local school, cruising town roads — who are looking for children. These predators want to snatch kids, entice them into a car or lure them into a home and use them to satisfy perverse desires.

Such images are powerful and provide an impetus for the current push by politicians, including New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch and Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, to crack down on sex offenders with tougher enforcement, longer prison terms and increased community supervision.

But these fears, while not unfounded, do not begin to provide a full picture of the complex problem of sex abuse in the Twin States. A Valley News analysis of regional and national statistics, and interviews with sex abuse experts, law enforcement officials, victims and perpetrators suggest that the dimensions of the problem are not well understood by the public and that its solutions defy easy prescription by politicians.

According to those sources:

• Rates of sex crimes and sexual abuse in New Hampshire, Vermont, New England and the nation are generally falling, not rising. The exception is the rate of rapes reported to police in New Hampshire and Vermont, which has increased in recent years. However, the latest rates are still much lower than the national rate.

• Most sex offenders are not strangers. Instead, they are victims' family members and friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Nationally, strangers commit only one in 10 sex crimes. In New Hampshire, that figure is less than one in 30. In Vermont, it's less than one in 50.

• Many of those who sexually abuse children are themselves minors. Law enforcement records in Vermont and New Hampshire show that in four out of 10 cases involving victims younger than 13, the abusers are 17 or younger.

• The belief that sex criminals will almost certainly leave prison to find new victims is not supported by research. National studies show that many sex criminals have lower recidivism rates than people convicted of offenses such as burglary and nonsexual assault. While some hard-core sex offenders have 50 percent recidivism rates, others — particularly those who undergo treatment — have rates of 5 percent or less.

• Although a Vermont judge's decision in January to sentence a sex offender to a minimum of 60 days sparked a firestorm of debate, an independent study by a Vermont group and interviews with lawyers suggest that judges are not soft on sex offenders. If anything, they say, sentences have been getting tougher in some Twin State courtrooms.

• Even as politicians push for mandatory minimum sentences for sex offenses, prosecutors in both states agree that such minimums would prove a handicap rather than a deterrent. While more consistency in sentencing would build public confidence, they say, mandatory sentences would take away the plea-bargaining power used to resolve cases that might be hard to prove in court.

• Finally, interviews with perpetrators and victims suggest that it's dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions about the causes of abuse or its long-term consequences.

Even though experts say the problem of sexual abuse is not as simple as some might believe, nobody disputes that it's still a problem. Groups that assist sexual abuse victims in New Hampshire and Vermont say that they've been seeing more victims than in years past.

Sarah Kenney of the Vermont Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Network said her network's groups — including the Upper Valley's WISE — reported almost 15,000 calls from victims of both domestic and sexual violence in 2005, an increase of 14 percent since 2004.

She said the increase could result from a rising number of attacks, more people discovering the service, or a combination of the two.

"The reality is that there are survivors of sexual violence in pretty much every room you find yourself in," said Kenney. "Survivors are everywhere."

But the overall decline in sexual abuse rates also suggests that at least some of the steps taken in recent decades — from educating the public and police to instituting prison rehabilitation programs — do help. "The problem (of sexual abuse) is still enormous," said Lisa Jones, a professor with the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. "But if we ignore the fact that it is going down, then we may miss the fact that some of the solutions we have now are actually working."

The Valley News will explore the problem, and its possible solutions, in a four-part series beginning today.

And a sidebar:


Public fears about sex offenders aren't always supported by the facts. Read more

By the Numbers: A statistical portrait of sex offenses. Read more

Recidivism: Sex offenders commit new crimes less often than some politicians suggest. Read more

Sentencing: Some prosecutors say prison sentences in most cases are already tough enough. Read more

Treatment: Treatment reduces the risk of criminals committing new sex crimes, particularly with a surprisingly common class of offenders: juveniles. Read more

Victims: The victims of sexual abuse report effects that range from crippling emotional damage to subtler wounds. Read more


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