Residency restrictions on released sex offenders — which typically prohibit them from living within 1,000 to 2,000 feet of a school, park or other child-friendly spot — have become an increasingly popular strategy aimed at preventing new sex crimes. As of 2006, 22 states had adopted a form of residency restriction on sex offenders, and even localities with fewer than 1,000 residents have passed such laws.
The perception that sex offenders — even in comparison to other violent offenders — prey on the defenseless in particular is no doubt one of the reasons for the revulsion with which the public regards them. Considering sex offenders' frequent victimization of children and adolescents and common use of deception to lure their victims, this perception has a substantial basis in fact. Another common public perception — that sex offenders are programmed predators, doomed to re-offend — rests on a shakier factual foundation.
The language of California's version of Jessica's Law (officially the Sexual Predator Punishment and Control Act) is typical of the conventional wisdom on the subject. Citing an unnamed 1998 U.S. Department of Justice report, the legislation declares, "Sex offenders are the least likely to be cured and the most likely to re-offend ... Sex offenders have a dramatically higher recidivism rate for their crimes than any other type of violent felon."
The research actually tells a somewhat different story. A 1997 Bureau of Justice Statistics report noted that, based on a study of felons on probation, "Rapists had a lower rate of re-arrest for a new felony and a lower rate of re-arrest for a violent felony than most categories of probationers with convictions for violence," with 19.5 percent of rapists being arrested for a new felony within three years, compared with 41 percent of other violent felons on probation.
A 2002 BJS study that followed nearly 300,000 felons released from state prison found that those who had served time for robbery or assault (excluding sexual assault) were the most likely to be "specialists" — those who, upon release, commit the same crime for which they had just been incarcerated. Within three years of their release, 13 percent of robbers and 22 percent of those convicted of assault had been arrested for new crimes of the same type as their previous offense — compared with 2.5 percent of released rapists arrested for a new rape during the same time period.
This is not to minimize the danger posed by sex offenders, who are more likely — when they do re-offend — to commit a sex crime than are other violent felons. The 1997 BJS report notes, "Released rapists were found to be 10.5 times as likely as nonrapists to be re-arrested for rape, and those who had served time for sexual assault were 7.5 times as likely as those convicted of other crimes to be re-arrested for a new sexual assault."
These figures are not the most chilling statistics to be found in the research, however. According to the 1997 BJS report, "Sexual assaulters were about three times as likely as all violent offenders and twice as likely as rapists to report that the victim had been a member of their family." A quarter of those imprisoned for sexual assault, notes the study, had victimized their own child or stepchild.
In other words — although the cases that capture headlines and drive ever more punitive legislation involve heinous crimes committed by strangers — studies indicate that sexual offenders usually are not the stereotypical stranger lurking at the edges of the playground.
As the Iowa County Attorneys Association noted in 2006, "Residency restrictions were intended to reduce sex crimes against children by strangers who seek access to children at the covered locations. Those crimes are tragic, but very rare. In fact, 80 to 90 percent of sex crimes against children are committed by a relative or acquaintance who has some prior relationship with the child and access to the child that is not impeded by residency restrictions. Only parents and caretakers can effectively impede that kind of access."
Defending residency restrictions, California state Sen. George Runner — the sponsor of California's Jessica's Law — told Miller-McCune.com, "Polygraph exams of sex offenders often reveal dozens or even hundreds of previously undisclosed offenses ... few rapes and even fewer child molestations are ever reported." Government data support this assertion: A 2006 BJS report on criminal victimization indicates that 41 percent of rapes and sexual assaults committed that year were reported to police, compared to 57 percent of robberies and 59 percent of aggravated assaults.
But if the distribution of unreported rapes and sexual assaults follows that of reported ones, it means that most undisclosed sex crimes are also committed by people who are related or otherwise known to their victims.
For his part, Runner has greater confidence in monitoring and controlling sex offenders than treating them as a way to prevent future crimes. "I am less than optimistic about the efficacy of (treatment) programs. For example, most gang members — the young ones in particular — have the potential to rehabilitate, while most sex offenders will recidivate because they are pedophiles," he told Miller-McCune.com.
"Pedophiles tend to require severe behavior modification — intensive supervision, chemical castration, GPS, random drug testing, etc.," he added. "Sex offenders tend to be model citizens except they sexually abuse children, which must require a higher level of treatment regimens. I believe in the near future GPS will be a standard tool of every law enforcement agency to monitor sex offenders. ... Therefore, the problem of supervising sex offenders should be a thing of the past. California law was the first to pair GPS monitoring with residency restrictions and, thus, I anticipate significant success in the coming years."
Despite his optimism, Runner has also expressed frustration at the slow implementation of the law's provision for GPS monitoring. And even though California lawmakers are currently scrambling to close a $15 billion budget gap, Runner said he is committed to having the state pay the costs of GPS tracking (which the sex offender management board has projected to be a minimum of $20 million for the state corrections agency alone), whether they are incurred by state or local law enforcement agencies.
But in focusing on reducing the odds of something that — while terrifying — is already highly unlikely to occur, parents and others concerned with the welfare of children may be missing the bigger picture.
As noted by the authors of a study of released Minnesota sex offenders, nearly two-thirds of the recidivating offenders "were biologically related to their victims (14 percent), or they gained access to their victims through a form of collateral contact such as a girlfriend, wife, co-worker, friend or acquaintance (51 percent). Thus, for the biological-contact and collateral-contact offenders, residential proximity was not nearly as important as social or relationship proximity."
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