Thursday, June 22, 2006

O.K. Carter is right on target!

Amazing! Three days ago I noted that columnist O.K. Carter had posted some interesting numbers, but had gotten one point wrong -- recidivism stats. Today his column picks up that issue, and he is exactly on target! Myths about sex offenders make policy:

Sometimes, an urban myth becomes so pervasive that it is accepted as the unquestioned truth in every quarter -- from city hall to police headquarters to the media.

Consider as example the recent hoopla at Arlington City Hall that ended up creating a tough new policy related to how close repeat sexual offenders can live from places where children congregate. The new ordinance requires that repeat offenders live at least 1,000 feet from such places.

At last count, Arlington had about 400 registered sex offenders, of which 237 were charged with sexual offenses when the victim was 16 or younger. There may well have been, as is the case with criminal activity of all types, many offenses before the arrest that resulted in prison time.

The general wisdom is that sex offenders' condition is chronic, that they are unwilling or unable to change their behavior. In criminal justice, this is called recidivism.

But is the myth of massive recidivism true? Fortunately for society, the available statistical evidence shows this conventional wisdom to be bogus.

Consider the Department of Justice's 1994 study of 9,691 imprisoned male sex offenders from 15 states.

What the study determined was that, yes indeed, released sex offenders were four times more likely to be arrested for another sex crime than were men released from prison for other crimes.

That bit of information, typically interpreted out of context, is probably as responsible for public fears and governmental paranoia on this topic as anything.

But here's the context: The study tracked sex offenders for three years and discovered that 5.3 percent were rearrested for another sex crime, slightly more than one offender out of every 20.

How does that compare to the general, all-categories-of-crime prison population?

According to the study, of the 272,111 people released from prisons in the 15-state study area, 67.5 percent were "rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years." That's more than 13 of every 20 prisoners released. Now that's recidivism.

And sex offenders?

"Sex offenders were less likely than non-sex offenders to be rearrested for any offense," the report noted.

And how about the most heinous category of sex offenders: child molesters? An estimated 3.3 percent were rearrested for the same crime within three years. That low rate is probably because such offenders have mandatory post-release counseling. Though even this statistic is alarming, recognize that, as previously noted, about two-thirds of released male prisoners involved in other types of crime will rob, mug, burgle or extort again.

Incidentally, the majority of sex offenses involving children -- 71 percent, according to Bureau of Justice statistics -- are committed by relatives, friends or neighbors. In short, by someone the child knows.

In that context, the 1,000-foot rule adopted by the council is comforting but essentially worthless. If parents are worried about victimization of their children by sexual predators, the first checklist should be the people they or their children know.

O.K. Carter's column appears Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. Carter also co-hosts P3: People, Politics and Possibilities at 9:30 nightly on Comcast cable Channel 16. 817- 548-5428,

I like this guy. He's got the guts to be straight with the facts when he gets them (I don't know what led him to the quoted study, but I'm glad he saw it). The Star-Telegram has got a rare treasure with this columnist.


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