There is money to be made off of sex offenders. Consider Watch Systems, Inc., a Louisiana based company, which sells their Offender Watch system to counties and sheriffs' departments all over the United States. Their service makes it possible for local residents to see information on sex offenders in their area on local web sites such as that of the county sheriff. Residents also may sign up for e-mail alerts when a registered sex offender moves into their area. Counties pay several thousand dollars for this service. Often this is covered by a grant for the initial year with the county picking up the cost in subsequent years.
It should be of no surprise that fear plays a part in their sales approach. Their web site reminds government entities that they should be afraid of their citizens: “The public has zero tolerance for law enforcement who minimally comply with sex offender laws. How would the public grade your office on sex offender address verification, registration and community notification?”
They also fan the fears of the public. Their online presentation which is incorporated into all their local web sites contains this statement: 50% of sex offenders re-offend." This statement is puzzling, to say the least. It is at variance with the largest study of sex offender recidivism ever done in the United States, a 2003 U.S. Department of Justice report--Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994. Its findings: “In 1994, prisons in 15 States released 9,691 male sex offenders. The 9,691 men are two-thirds of all the male sex offenders released from State prisons in the United States in 1994. This report summarizes findings from a survey that tracked the 9,691 for 3 full years after their release… Within the first 3 years following their release from prison in 1994, 5.3% (517 of the 9,691) of released sex offenders were rearrested for a sex crime… Of the 9,691 released sex offenders, 3.5% (339 of the 9,691) were reconvicted for a sex crime within the 3-year followup period.
I e-mailed Watch Systems and asked them for the source of their 50% recidivism figure. I received this response from Mark A. Wilson, their Vice President of Marketing: “…we are not trying by any means to exaggerate the recidivism statistics nor to create hysteria – the numbers we use are widely reported in various channels and media and by various experts in the field. They are based in part on this and other studies from the Dept of Justice http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/soo.pdf (This link no longer works. Click on the link below).The source of their information was Sex Offenses and Offenders; An Analysis of Data on Rape and Sexual Assault by Lawrence A. Greenfeld, Statistician, Bureau of Justice Statistic, February 1997. It is important to note that this study is ten years older (follows prisoners released in 1983) than the Department of Justice study referenced above. When one looks at the details of the study, one finds that Watch Systems' use of the statistics contained therein is questionable, at best. Here are some direct quotations from the report:
Offenders convicted of rape and sexual assault composed just over 4% of those discharged from prisons in the 11 States in 1983. Over the 3-year period following prison release, an estimated 52% of discharged rapists and 48% of discharged sexual assaulters were re-arrested for a new crime. Their criminal history records also evidenced a lower percentage of sex offenders who were reconvicted and reimprisoned during the followup period than was the case for all violent offenders discharged from prison...
Nearly 28% of released rapists were re-arrested for a new violent crime within 3 years (figure 27). For nearly 8% of released rapists, the new arrest for a violent crime was another charge for rape. (p. 26)
The statement by Watch Systems, Inc. that "50% of sex offenders re-offend," clearly implies that 50% of registered sex offenders commit new sex crimes. This statement is clearly deceptive and does raise unwarranted hysteria about sex offenders.
New York regularly publishes 3 year follow-ups of all those released from state prisons. Between 1985 and 2002 a total of 12,863 sex offenders were released. Only 272 of these (2.1%) were returned to prison for new sex crimes within three years of their release. (2002 Releases: Three Year Post Release Follow-up, State of New York Department of Correctional Services, p. 16)
A recently published study was done of 19,827 offenders on the New York State Sex Offender Registry on March 31, 2005 (including those sentenced to probation (41%) or local jails. It found that the re-arrest rate for a new sex crime within 8 years of the date of first registration was 8%. The study also found that "sex offenders are arrested and/or convicted of committing a new sex crime at a lower rate than other offenders who commit other new non-sexual crimes." (Research Bulletin: Sex Offender Populations, Recidivism and Actuarial Assessment, New York State Division of Probation and Correctional Alternatives, May, 2007, p. 3-4). (Read a detailed analysis of sex offender recidivism in New York State)
Watch Systems’ online presentation also states: “More than half of rape/sexual assault incidents happened within a mile of the victim’s home.” This statement is contained in the Department of Justice report. Of course, the report also states that almost 40% of the assaults occur in the victim's home. This is obviously because a large number of these offenses occur within the family. The determining factor in these crimes is usually not geography, but relationships.
While a sex offender registry has its place as one tool among many, its worth should not be over emphasized. The face of danger is more likely to be in a family snapshot than in a mug shot on a sex offender registry. The vast majority of sex crimes (95% in New York state) are committed by someone not listed on a sex offender registry. The vast majority of registered sex offenders never commit another sex crime.
The statistics offered by Watch Systems are not only misleading, they are dangerous---in that they disguise the real problem of sexual abuse.
Update: In February, 2012 the State of Connecticut published a report on offender recidivism in that state. It showed that 2.7% of sex offenders were convicted of a new sex crime within 5 years of their release from prison. A reporter from the The Hartford Courant asked why the Connecticut Sex Offender registry website (operated by Watch Systems, Inc.) still reported, "50% of sex offenders re-offend." Amazingly, almost immediately, the 50% figure disappeared from the Connecticut Sex Offender Registry website and every other registry website operated by Watch Systems, Inc.
Watch Systems, Inc. is not the only part of the "sex offender industry" to benefit financially from hyping the danger with "funny" statics. See my blog on Parents for Megan's Law.