Monday, October 18, 2010

The New Urban Myth---The Danger of Registered Sex Offenders at Halloween

It's almost time for the annual Halloween sex offender hysteria. This seemingly has replaced the urban myths about poison candy and razor blades in apples. I was interested to find that there has actually been a recent empirical study of the issue. An article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Halloween sex-offender monitoring questioned," describes it:

...Elizabeth Letourneau, a researcher with the Medical University of South Carolina's Family Services Research Center in Charleston, S.C., said, "There is zero evidence to support the idea that Halloween is a dangerous date for children in terms of child molestation."

Paul Stern, a deputy prosecutor in Snohomish County, Wash., agrees.

"People want to protect kids; they want to do the right thing and they make decisions based on what at first glance may make some sense. Sex offenders, costumes, kids -- what a bad combination," he said.

"Unfortunately, those kinds of policies are not always based on any analysis or scientific evidence," said Stern, who started prosecuting sex offenders who victimized children in 1985.

Stern, Letourneau and two others published a paper last year for the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers called: "How Safe Are Trick-or-Treaters? An Analysis of Child Sex Crime Rates on Halloween."

The study looked at more than 67,000 sex crimes in 30 states against children 12 and younger from 1997 -- before many Halloween sex-offender programs began -- through 2005, well after many were under way...

"These findings raise questions about the wisdom of diverting law-enforcement resources to attend to a problem that does not appear to exist," the study concluded.

Letourneau said, "There's just no increase in sex offense on that day, and in all likelihood that's because kids are out in groups or they're out with their parents and they're moving around, they're not isolated and otherwise at risk." She said a better use of police on Halloween night would be to help protect children from traffic.

"We almost called this paper 'Halloween: The Safest Day of the Year' because it was just so incredibly rare to see anything happen on that day," she said.
The entire study is available for purchase. An authors' summary is available for free.

Interestingly, the study found that sex crimes increased substantially during summer months and that the summer would be a more appropriate time for increased vigilance. More from the study:

It might be argued that Halloween sex offender policies are worthwhile even if they prevent only a single child from being victimized. However, this line of reasoning fails to consider the cost side of the cost–benefit equation. The wide net cast by Halloween laws places some degree of burden on law enforcement officers whose time would otherwise be allocated to addressing more probable dangerous events. For example, a particularly salient threat to children on Halloween comes from motor vehicle accidents. Children aged 5 to 14 years are four times more likely to be killed in a pedestrian–motor vehicle accident on Halloween than on any other day of the year (Centers for Disease Control, 1997). Regarding criminal activity on Halloween, alcohol-related offenses and vandalism are particularly common (Siverts, 2002). Although we do not know the precise amount of law enforcement resources consumed by Halloween sex offender policies, it will be important for policy makers to estimate and consider allocation of resources in light of the actual increased risks that exist in other areas, such as pedestrian–vehicle fatalities. Our findings indicated that sex crimes against children by nonfamily members account for 2 out of every 1,000 Halloween crimes, calling into question the justification for diverting law enforcement resources away from more prevalent public safety concerns.

...the data set did not contain variables that would have
been valuable for even more precisely focusing the study incidents, such as information about whether the perpetrator was a registered sex offender or whether the incident specifically involved a trick-or-treat context.

Literally thousands of articles have been published in recent years about the danger presented by registered sex offenders at Halloween. Absent from all of them has been any mention of any specific incident in which a registered sex offender has attacked a Trick-or-Treater---not one, ever! If you know of any such incident, please e-mail me or post a comment below. I bet you can't find one. This is a new urban myth. We always need some sort of monster on Halloween. It's the nature of the holiday.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

NY Senate Committee Points in a New Direction for Sex Offender Management in New York State

The New York Senate Committee on Crime, Crime Victims, and Corrections has just published their 2009-2010 report. The report's section on "Effective Sex Offender Management in New York State," points in a new direction for sex offender management in the state. This new direction is based on facts and research, rather than mythology and hysteria. Reforming the laws in the ways this report suggests will make our communities safer and will potentially be more cost effective.


In March 2010, the Committee conducted two roundtables which included experts in the field of effective sex offender management. Staffs of both parties were present and engaged in a question and answer period. From these meetings the following policy goals were suggested and we now share them with our readers.

1. Convene public hearings on effective sex offender management and public safety to begin to develop comprehensive legislation that will better facilitate the goal of improving public safety and reducing the risk of sexual assault. After fourteen years of sex offender registries and a growing list of restrictions in place in New York, there is little evidence that any of these measures have contributed to a decrease in sexual assault. There is, however, a growing body of research suggesting that some laws relating to registration, notification, and overly harsh laws restricting where sex offenders can be and how they can engage with their communities may exacerbate the risk that they will reoffend. We should engage in a conversation to consider developing a comprehensive sex offender management plan that embraces new research and is aimed at reducing recidivism.

2. Re-examine the method of assessing risk of re-offense among registered sex offenders currently used by the New York State Board of Examiners and appoint a commission to choose among the various assessment tools available today one that would provide the most reliable determination of risk. New York’s Risk Assessment Guidelines were developed more than fifteen years ago, at a time when experts in the state knew far less about how to measure the risk that someone once convicted of a sex crime would reoffend. It is our belief—one shared by many experts—that there are far too many people in New York who are misclassified in the higher levels of risk, and therefore unnecessarily diverting limited resources away from likely re-offenders.

3. Reject additional further residency restriction proposals and instead reinforce the ability of individual probation and parole officers to assess whether there are residences that are inappropriate for certain individuals such that they would pose an unacceptable risk of re-offense. The legislature should also pass affirmative legislation that would require counties to create plans for safe and stable housing for sex offenders. All of the empirical research examining the effectiveness of residency restrictions shows that residency restrictions do not work to reduce the risk of harm to children. They have been shown to discourage offenders from reporting their whereabouts to law enforcement, and they destabilize offenders’ lives, creating roadblocks to successful re-integration into society and increasing the risk of recidivism. Housing stability is a key to reducing recidivism, and a comprehensive sex offender management plan must include provisions to ensure stable housing for offenders.

4. Many states have declined to adopt the federal Adam Walsh Act that would expand community notification via the state’s Internet registry to include registered offenders who pose the lowest risk of re-offense; require that anytime affirmative community notification is undertaken that law enforcement concurrently conduct community education to ensure that risk is communicated in a way that makes sense; monitor acts of vigilantism and take action against anyone found to have abused the use of the Internet registry to harass or harm a registered offender or his family. Community notification has been found to have no demonstrable impact on sexual recidivism. In fact, some studies suggest that community notification may aggravate stressors that lead to increased recidivism32, and requiring broad community notification via the Internet may discourage some victims of sexual abuse from reporting incidents to the authorities. Victims may be reluctant to report offenses out of concern for a perpetrator who is close to them ( a relative, a step-parent), or out of concern for their own privacy.33 The Adam Walsh Act would take New York in a dangerously opposite direction, besides the fact that experts agree that it would cost more to implement than the state would stand to lose in federal grant money.

5. Pass the Healthy Teens Act,34 a bill pending in both the Assembly and the Senate, which would establish an age-appropriate and medically accurate program of comprehensive sex education, including instruction on avoiding unwanted verbal, physical and sexual advances. Each year, New York adds another restriction on those already convicted of sex offenses as a means to prevent sexual violence against children. However, the overwhelming majority (around 95%) of sex offenses, including rape and child molestation, are committed by those who have never before been convicted of an offense. This means that New York concentrates all of its legislative efforts on preventing only 5% of all sex crimes against children, and completely ignores the threat posed by first-time offenders. The Healthy Teens Act would provide young people with age-appropriate comprehensive sex education that would include instruction about how to avoid becoming a victim—perhaps the .most valuable and effective tool way to reduce the incidence of childsexual assault.

32 Naomi J. Freeman, The Public Safety Impact of Community Notification Laws, Crime & Delinquency (2009) (“Empirical research has suggested that sex offenders do not always commit crimes within their areas of residence and, thus, the areas in which notification occurs. Indeed, studies in Colorado and Minnesota found that sex offenders are unlikely to offend close to their homes and within the area that notification occurs; rather, sex offenders may travel, on average, 3 to 5 miles to gain access to victims.”).

33 Jeffrey C. Sandler, Does a Watched Pot Boil? A Time-Series Analysis of New York State’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law, Psychology, Contextualizing Sex Offender Management Legislation and Policy: Evaluating the problem of Latent Consequences in Community Notification Laws, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology (2001).

34 Assembly Bill 1806A (Assemblyman Gottfried)/Senate Bill 3836 (Senator Duane).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Should registered sex offenders be coaches?

Should registered sex offenders be coaches? Senator Charles Schumer says, "No!"

"Convicted sex offenders should not be able to hold any job or volunteer position where they have interaction with children in New York or across the country, period," Schumer said. "The fact that these sex offenders are able to coach our children's teams, operate rides at fairs, and teach them dance and music is beyond scary and we must take immediate action to stop it. My hope is that my new legislation closes this huge loophole so no children are put into harm's way."

Additional jobs that could come under the measure would be tutors, youth mentors, workers at recreation centers, video arcades, and children's museums.

The measure would require states to pass laws prohibiting employment of sex offenders in those private sector jobs or lose out on specific federal funding.

On the surface, such a law seems to make sense, as many of these sex offender laws do. Unfortunately, the label, "sex offender", is applied all too broadly. Consider the young man in college who attends a party with his girlfriend. They have too much to drink. Lines are blurred. She says that he crossed one. He takes a plea deal to avoid going to jail. He has to register as a sex offender. He later marries and has a family and lives a productive life in society. Should he be prohibited from being a coach of his son's Little League baseball team?

Of course, such a federal law is a long away from being passed. Even if such a federal mandate is enacted, states may well choose to ignore it, as they recently have other federal sex offender laws.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Governor Paterson Proposes Legislation to Strengthen Sex Offender Laws. Will It?

Governor Paterson has proposed legislation for the stated purpose of strengthening sex offender laws. All things considered, the proposed legislation (the text of which is not yet available) makes some relatively minor changes around the margins of a marginally effective tool.

New York States admits that the Sex Offender Registry is only of very limited value in preventing sex crimes. According to the NY Office of Sex Offender Management web site, "The vast majority of sex crimes are committed by someone who is not on the Sex Offender Registry. During 2005-2006, approximately 94% of the persons arrested for sexual offenses in New York State had no prior sex convictions. As a result, these people would not have been on the Sex Offender Registry."

The legislation does fix one glaring inconsistency in current law. Currently, the exact home address of Level 2 ("moderate risk") offenders is listed on the state sex offender registry web site, but the law allows local law enforcement to share only the zip codes of Level 2 offenders.

Another fix also is warranted: "Require high-risk sex offenders and sexual predators to personally appear before the local law enforcement agency within 10 days of release or relocation, instead of the current 90 days."

The other changes are of questionable value, at best, and some present real reasons for concern.

The legislation would open the door to listing juveniles on the sex offender registry, a very serious step.

The legislation would: "Make it a felony for a sex offender to fail to report his or her address as required, even if he or she has not moved from that address."

Sean M. Byrne, Acting Commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), said: "Though it is currently a felony for an offender to fail to verify their address, if they have not moved and simply refuse to obey the law and send in the verification form, there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. Consequently, we are constantly asking law enforcement to find people who, more than 75 percent of the time, aren't missing at all. That is a terrible waste of police resources and an indefensible flouting of the law by these sex offenders. Governor Paterson's bill would address that legal absurdity, and implement several other common sense reforms."

Although one can sympathize with the Governor's desire to cut administrative and compliance costs, having taxpayers pay to incarcerate an individual for at least a year for simply not mailing a return post card hardly seems cost effective.

Another proposal would: "Require that Level 2 sex offenders have a new photograph taken every year, rather than every three years." What's the point? This adds very little value for additional cost.

Another proposal will: "Ensure that all sex offenders registered in other states who move to New York are required to register here...[because] Sex offenders from other states who move to New York State may not have to register in this State."

This proposal is particularly problematic. Under current law, anyone who moves to New York from another state wherein they have committed a crime which requires registration under New York law must register when they move to New York. Under the new proposal, registered sex offenders which move to New York State must register as sex offenders even if their offense is not considered a crime in New York State. For example, New York State does not criminalize consensual sex between an eighteen year old and a sixteen year old as some other states do. (NY requires at least a four year difference in ages to bring criminal charges). Here the Governor is seeking for New York to treat citizens from other states differently than New York citizens. This raises constitutional concerns in relation to the "equal protection" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It also bloats the New York sex offender registry with those who present no risk. (Imagine if one of these no risk "offenders" who moves to New York fails to mail in his or her annual address verification post card. New York taxpayers would then have to pay for their imprisonment for a year).

According to the press release: "Mary B. Kavaney, Deputy Secretary for Public Safety, said: 'Over time, and partially as a result of some piecemeal amendments, portions of SORA have become inconsistent with the original intent of the legislation.'

Actually, New York's sex offender registry has strayed even further from the intent of the original law than Kavaney indicates. Under the original version of New York's sex offender registration law, only high risk offenders (violent offenders, repeat offenders, those who targeted strangers) were placed on the public registry. All others were known only by law enforcement. As lower risk individuals have been added to the public registry, its effectiveness has been diluted. Also under the original law, those former offenders who lived safely in the community for ten years were to be dropped from the registry. (After ten years of living safely in the community, chances of recidivism are near zero for most former offenders). The law was subsequently changed so that, to this point, no one has been dropped from the registry. The registry now numbers 30,000, and it (and taxpayers' costs) continue to grow.

If New York would like to get rid of some of its registered sex offenders, it could easily do so with a simple change in the law. Under current law, New York offenders must continue to register in New York even if they move to a state where they are not required to register. If New York no longer required registration of out of state offenders, no doubt some would chose to move to other states.

It is noteworthy that one study has shown that New York's Sex Offender registry has had no effect in reducing crime. A federally funded study by the New Jersey Department of Corrections had similar findings.