Thursday, November 23, 2006

To stay safe people shouldn't focus entirely on the Sex Offender Registry

Finally somebody's beginning to figure things out:

GRAND RAPIDS -- "I haven't seen it stop a crime," said West Grand Neighborhood Organization Director and crime prevention organizer Nola Steketee. But, like a lot of people, she uses the Michigan Sex Offender Registry and likes it. "It's a great tool. I'm very glad that it's here."

According to a state audit last year, the Sex Offender Registry exists to help prevent convicted sex offenders from committing more sex crimes. The audit, however, didn't look at the question of whether or not it did.

Target 8 Investigators could find no government study asking hard questions about the Michigan Registry. So Target 8 Investigators took a look at the basic numbers.

We looked at State Police crime statistics from 1999, the year before the Registry went online, and 2004, the most recent year for which numbers are available. We combined the stats for rape and other sex crimes, excluding prostitution. We found that there were 147 sex crimes per 100,000 Michigan residents in 1999, and a small increase in 2004, 157 per 100,000.

That suggests the Registry has had little impact.

But "it's always tough to quantify crime prevention," said Michael Bouchard, the former Michigan legislator often regarded as the creator of the Registry. What he means is that it's impossible to know if a crime was avoided by someone acting on information contained in the Registry, or how many times that might have happened.

Bouchard, who recently lost a bid for a US Senate seat, believes the Registry has had an impact beyond what crime numbers might show. "I think it's helped raise the awareness within the community of the problem and the safety issues," he said, "and I think it also put a chilling effect in those offenders because they know there's a lot more attention given to him."

Neighborhood crime fighter Steketee said she has seen another byproduct of the Registry. "I've seen it make neighborhoods closer," she says. "I've seen it make groups of people get out of their homes and actually talk to their neighbors," which, she said, is what crime prevention is about.

The Registry is based on the popular idea that most sex offenders will commit more sex crimes once they get out of prison. But Target 8 Investigators read study after study with contrary results.

One study looked at 61 other research projects and found that the repeat rate for sex offenders is lower than that for other criminals in general. Some 13 percent committed another sex crime, compared to a repeat rate of 36 percent for all other crimes. If that's the case it may suggest why the crime rate at least appears unaffected by the introduction of sex offender registries.

It may be that most sex crimes are committed by people who have yet to be caught and so are not on any registry. We haven't yet found any research that directly addresses that question.

But the fact there are offenders not on any registry is a reason to put the existence of registries in perspective. "There are many potential sex offenders out there who have never been arrested yet and they're not on the list and they still pose a danger," said Tom Cottrell. He's in charge of the Grand Rapids YWCA counseling program that works with sex crime victims.

That means to stay safe people shouldn't focus entirely on the Sex Offender Registry.


On the Net:

Bureau of Justice Statistics Sex Offender Recidivism

10-Year Sex Offender Recidivism Follow Up (Ohio)

Sex Offender Recidivism (Iowa)

Sex Offender Recidivism (Washington state)

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