Monday, June 19, 2006

Interesting numbers

O.K. Carter gets it wrong on one point, but has some interesting numbers in By any measure, sex offenders involve a cost:

Though the ordinance has a feel-good quality, a recent Arlington council measure requiring repeat sex offenders with victims 16 or younger to live at least 1,000 feet from places children gather will in actuality provide little or no benefit.

Start walking down the sidewalk from your front door and four to five minutes later you'll have covered that 1,000 feet. Drive it, never exceeding 30 mph, and 1,000 feet takes all of 23 seconds. And children live and play everywhere, not just at schools and parks.

But the fact that the City Council -- in fact, hundreds of city councils nationwide -- are passing such measures does testify to something very real. Many residents and the elected officials who represent them feel very uncomfortable in proximity to such offenders. The ordinances that have resulted are an attempt to somehow do something, however small, that will protect children, be enforceable within the court system and limit temptations for offenders. Arlington has 400 registered sex offenders, of whom 237 victimized someone 16 or younger. Recidivism, or a tendency to repeat offenses, is common within this type of criminal activity. So the concern reflects reality, not paranoia.

Information about offenders, which crimes they've committed and where they live in your city is easy enough to find because federal law requires all states to maintain publicly accessible offender registries. Many states, including Texas, make the data available online.

This also brings up an interesting question about just how uncomfortable residents are when they know that a sexual offender lives nearby.

One answer was provided last month via a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research written by economists Leigh Linden and Jonah Rockoff. Basically the study determines how residential property values are affected by proximity to sex-crime felons. The study, NBER Working Paper No. 12253, also has a catchy title: There Goes the Neighborhood.

Here's the study's bottom line: When a sex offender moves into a neighborhood, values of homes within a tenth of a mile drop an average of 4 percent. Though this study was conducted in North Carolina, if the same holds true in Arlington -- and why wouldn't it? -- it would mean a drop in average home value somewhere in the $5,000 to $6,000 range.

A tenth of a mile is 528 feet, on average 1.5 blocks in a straight line, except that the impact is circular, a tenth of a mile in every direction, a circle two-tenths mile across. That translates to an impact across about seven blocks.

Put another way, residents of a neighborhood find the presence of a sexual offender to be so distasteful or frightening that they're willing to make a financial sacrifice equal to burning what for the average Arlington household would be more than a month's gross salary.

Residents typically respond to more crime around them, the study says, by either endorsing more anti-crime policies like the one the Arlington council just approved, or by moving away. Neither outcome is free.

When all the social costs of sex offenses are added up, including items like property value losses and extra policing, the public cost of each case rounds out to about a million dollars each, Linden and Rockoff say. By illustration, Arlington originally considered hiring as many as three extra police officers just to enforce the new ordinance but eventually opted to hire only one.

It all adds up, a cost here, a cost there, certainly not all of which can be measured in dollars.

Where does he get it wrong, you ask? Here: "victimized someone 16 or younger. Recidivism, or a tendency to repeat offenses, is common within this type of criminal activity. So the concern reflects reality, not paranoia."

There are studies that show this simply is not the case. This site has references to one or more studies in the linked paper. Unfortunately it also links to a much more in-depth study out of Canada that refuted at length O.K. Carter's assertion of high recidivism... but that study has been moved or removed. (If anyone knows the page's owner, would you contact him or her?


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