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).