Saturday, December 22, 2007

Are Sex Offender Laws Working?

This is the lead in to the article on WNCY's web site announcing the The Leonard Lopate Show: Underreported: Are Sex Offender Laws Working? broadcast on Dec 20, 2007.
Links follow the article.

Underreported: Are Sex Offender Laws Working?

US sex offender laws may do harm than good, according to a recent report from Human Rights Watch. Strict notification laws and residency requirements don’t reflect the reality of the risks children face, may not protect victims, and violate the basic human rights of former offenders.

Sarah Tofte is a researcher at Human Rights Watch; Linda runs a support group for families of registered sex offenders. Elizabeth J. Letourneau, Ph.D. works with juvenile sex offenders. She's Associate Professor at the Family Services Research Center of the Medical University of South Carolina.

Weigh in: What do you think about current sex offender laws? Are they working? We’d like to hear from people associated with both victims and offenders.

Read HRW’s report "No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the United States"
Visit the Sex Offender Support and Education Network (SOSEN)
Download MP3 of the broadcast

Listen to it on line:

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Voices of the EXPERTS:

 The following excerpts are a compilation of quotes from experts in Constitutional Law, Law Enforcement, and Psychology, regarding the effectiveness of proximity (residency restrictions) and registration laws.

“Therapy works for these people. Let them be punished for their crimes, let them out and let them get on with their lives. Let them work. Let them have stable homes and families and let them live in peace. Harassing them, making them move and continually punishing them does far more harm than good. A sex offender in therapy with a job and a place to live is less of a threat than one that is constantly harassed.”
-- Robert Shilling-Detective/ Seattle, WA Crimes Against Children Division

“If the 2,000-foot rule had been in effect 10 years ago, I can’t think of a single case from our files that would have been any different.”
-- Sgt. Bryce Smith, Sex Offender Registry Officer, Scott County, Iowa

“What you’re doing is pushing people more underground, pushing them away from treatment and pushing them away from monitoring, you’re really not improving the safety, but you are giving people a false sense of safety.”
-- John Gruber, Executive Director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers

“We went from knowing where about 90 percent of them were. We’re lucky if we know where 50 to 55 percent of them are now...the law created an atmosphere that these individuals can’t find a place to live.”
-- Sheriff Don Zeller, Linn County, Iowa

“When I talk with friends, colleagues and neighbors regarding this law, the first reaction is that we must do everything we can to protect our children. Absolutely. But I am afraid this statute gives parents and communities a false sense of protection against crimes that most often occur not at school bus stops, but where children are in the greatest danger: their own homes.”
-- J. Tom Morgan, Former DeKalb County DA

“It may be time to do away with sex offender registration laws altogether. At the very least, the federal government should commission research to study the laws’ effectiveness. In the meantime, several changes should be made. States should differentiate between serious and non-serious offenders and only require registration of the most serious offenders. Next, public access to online sites should be dismantled, and registries should be kept at the local police stations. This would provide at least a minimal screening process to those seeking inquiries… Lastly, we should experiment with restorative justice models such as what has happened in Canada where sex offenders moving into a community meet with members of the community in a public forum facilitated by a trained mediator. This type of forum gives the community an opportunity to meet the offender face to face and express their concerns and for the offender to show the community that he is earnestly seeking to change his life.”
-- Rachel King, Professor of Law, Howard University School of Law, Washington, D.C.

“Though laudable in their intent, there is little evidence that recently enacted housing policies achieve their stated goals of reducing recidivistic sexual violence. In fact, there is little research at all evaluating the effectiveness of these policies. Furthermore, these policies are not evidence-based in their development or implementation, as they tend to capture the widely heterogeneous group of sex offenders rather than utilize risk assessment technology to identify those who pose a high danger to public safety.”
-- Jill S. Levenson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Human Services, Lynn University

“The recent wave of sex offender legislation is based upon emotion and myths about sex offenders which are not supported by valid research or evidence. Legislation in this area should be based upon facts and valid evidence. The NACDL encourages criminal defense lawyers, prosecutors and legislators to oppose legislation based upon myth and public emotion. In doing so we can ensure both public safety and due process.”
-- Report of the Sex Offender Policy Task Force, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

“I would rather have someone who has committed a sex offense be going to work every day, come home tired, have a sense of well-being that comes from having a regular paycheck and a safe home, as opposed to having a sex offender who has a lot of free time on his hands.”
-- Richard Hamill, President of the New York State Alliance of Sex Offender Service Providers

“The current law applies to too many offenders and I spend ‘way, way too much of my time’ trying to enforce it, I believe less than 10% of the state's 8,000 convicted sex offenders to be high-risk and is lobbying lawmakers to focus on them”
-- Sgt. Gary Stansill, Tulsa Police Department, Sex-crimes Unit

“What we're doing with sexual predator laws is creating or enlarging an exception to those constraints. We're saying the government can take away people's liberty ... based on a prediction that somebody might be dangerous in the future.”
-- Eric Janus, Vice Dean, William Mitchell College of Law

“The more cities choose to install these ordinances, the more ex-offenders will become an exile class, sex offenders are less likely to reoffend if they're allowed to reintegrate into society, to get a job, to establish stable roots, a support network, a home, by forcing these people to be refugees, politicians are essentially making their own citizens less safe.”
-- William Buckman, defense attorney and national sex offender policy expert

“The law was well-intentioned, but we don't see any evidence of a connection between where a person lives and where they might offend.”
-- Corwin R. Ritchie, Iowa County Attorneys Association

“We're not aware of any evidence that residency restrictions have prevented a child from being victimized.”
-- Carolyn Atwell-Davis, Director of Legislative Affairs, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

We Believe

We believe … that no sexual abuse or sexual assault is acceptable whether it be against children or adults.

We believe … that the Notification (Sex Offender Registry) and Proximity Laws have evolved into a system that does not protect children from sex offenders and have created a false sense of security.

We believe … that the Sex Offender Registry must be returned to its original intent - tracking the most dangerous and predatory offenders and intentional absconders - in order for it to be an effective tool.

We believe … in a Five Tiered system of risk assessment that allows offenders to progressively earn their freedom from restrictions and not be forever branded by a single event.

We believe … that the rights of victims, offenders and their families must all be considered in determining sex offender policy.

We believe … that each case must be judged on its own merits with a punishment that fits the crime.

We believe … in balanced and restorative justice and Constitutional protection in place of retributive justice and banishment for former offenders and their families.

We believe … that chronic and/or violent offenders need to be separated from society and released conditionally only on proof of reform.

We believe … that laws addressing sex offenses must be based on research and not on emotion, myths, and misconceptions.

We believe … in increased penalties for using the registries to harass or intimidate offenders.

We believe … that funds must be made available for research into factors impacting sex offenses, effective therapeutic approaches and management techniques, and education and prevention strategies.

We believe … that potential offenders battling sexually deviant thoughts must be allowed to seek structured and accountability-based therapy without being exposed to mandatory reporting.

We believe … that statutory offenders age 21 and younger must have the opportunity to be removed from registries if no sexually deviant attributes exist.

We believe … that juvenile offenders must not be placed on the registry.

We believe … that offenses such as public urination, “mooning”, and other incidental nudity should not be considered to be sex offenses and must not be on the registry.

We believe … that the vast amounts of money spent, budgeted and planned for retributive justice would be better spent on proven treatment and prevention programs and strategies.

We believe … that family reunification can often be achieved through therapy and support for the victim, offender, and family members along with the offender’s dedication to change.

We believe … that defining an offender as “violent” or “predatory” must be based on their history and the offense and not arbitrary constructs. An offender should not be categorized as “violent” when no violence was involved or “predatory” when no sexual offense history exists.

We believe … that people can change, improve themselves, and accomplish their own human revolution.

If It Harms One Child

Good afternoon, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule.

My name is Linda, and you should know it has taken every ounce of courage come here and speak today. I hope the conversation we start will continue at your home and in your communities when you leave here today. Let's start out by talking about how easy it is to dehumanize people. Sad to say, but dehumanizing is a dark side of human nature. We do it because we can then pretend an issue or idea does not touch us. When we allow this to happen, we are sadly wrong, very, very wrong.

According to the United Sates Department of Justice statistics, one out of three girls will be victimized before the age of eighteen. The rate for boys is one out of six. The Department of Justice statistics also show children are sexually abused by family members or by people the family knows or trusts in over 90% of the cases. This issue touches every zip code. The Bureau of Justice Statistics also shows that predators represent around 3% of all sex offenders and child killers are less than 1% of all offenders. There are now more than 300 million people in the United States and more than 600,000 registered sex offenders on the various state sex offender registry web sites. You do the math. How many assaults went unreported? 90% of all new registered sex offenders are first time offenders. Remember, at least 90% are known, trusted, and close to the victim. These statistics begs the question, why are we passing laws based on three to five percent of this population and ignoring at least 95% of the problem.

You should know that. There is life after sexual abuse. I am a member of a family that used restorative justice and family re-unification techniques with the help of counselors and the courts to work through the "unspeakable". It is through understanding the dynamics of the crime that true healing manifests itself. That fact is true on both sides of the equation, victim or offender. I see it time and time again in the support groups that I run for the ex-offender and their family members. Let our families HEAL. We have the same hopes and dreams for our families that you have for yours.

One of the most important things you should remember, and take away with you is that there is NOT a sex offender lurking behind every bush, or school bus stop or stalking playgrounds. These things most often happen much closer than that. These laws will not protect your children. Your family members and your children have the potential to become VICTIM to these laws. These laws have gotten so bad that we are now branding teenagers as SO for normal sexual exploration.

Something else I hope you take home with you is the collateral damage that has grown out of Sex Offender hysteria and panic is staggering. Around 50% of Sex offenders have wives, and half of those have children. Most of them have parents that are still living and many have siblings. In other words, families just like yours and mine. Where are the laws that protect these wives, children, parents of siblings? As stated, at present there are over 600,000 Registered Sex Offenders. Their innocent children, spouses, and family members are being harassed and ridiculed on a daily basis. The fear of some vigilante knocking on my door keeps me up at night. The pressure is almost too much to bear. Because of the lack of employment opportunities, fathers can no longer support their children. Families are being forced from their homes several times a year because of residency laws or BANISHMENT that do not work and worse make no sense.

Believe it or not, each one of you is at risk to be touched by this issue, in this hysteria-filled atmosphere. Picture this. Your teenage son or grandson has a girlfriend and they engage in sexual activity, and the girls parents find out and call the police. Suddenly, there is an investigation, the District Attorney sees another easy win and you wake up one morning and your child or grandchild is now classified as a sex offender! Moreover, he will pay for that foolish act, that moment of allowing passion to overcome his upbringing and common sense, that momentary indiscretion, for THE REST OF HIS LIFE.

Or, how about this ... You and your husband are out for a day in the park, he has to urinate, and there is no bathroom available, so he ducks behind a tree or bush. As careful as he tried to be, a 12-year-old girl walked by, saw him, and tells her mother. That is now called indecent exposure and believe it or not, it is a registrable sex offense! How about this ... You and your spouse are going through a divorce and custody battle. Your spouse accuses you of sexual abuse, the next thing you know, you're a sex offender. These things have and continue to happen to good, decent, god fearing, and law-abiding people everyday.

Today, when a child is molested by a family member and the family is allowed to remain together, in spite of the help of therapists and the courts, their ordeal is not over. This is the result of the irrational laws passed by politicians, looking for election year sound bites; which cause that child's address to be on the internet! One out of five registrants report harassment by neighbors, one in eight reports their children are harassed by other neighborhood children; four out of ten are harassed at CHURCH and three out of ten have received death threats. Nevertheless, there is life after sexual abuse! I was molested as a child. I choose to be a survivor, not a professional victim. I am not glossing over the horrors of childhood sexual abuse. It must be acknowledged and dealt with aggressively. Not every victim has the same experience. Let US HEAL! How sad it is our society, our media, and politicians are sending the message to our children that they cannot heal. How sad we keep pouring salt into their wounds. True healing can take place. I am on a quest to bring that same opportunity to my child. My child was molested by a family member. We are successfully dealing with it; in spite of the sex offender registry, which with the click of a mouse button, old wounds can be reopened. However, with a lot of help and the tenacity only a mother can have, I decided to fight this horrifying and grave injustice to my family and myself. I believe any parent would do the same.

If you really want to keep your children safe, take the time to educate yourself. Your government, the politicians cannot keep your kids safe! The only thing these registries or community notification and proximity or banishment laws are doing is creating a false sense of security for families. Do your own research! We can provide you with web sites that prove everything I am telling you. Remember, MOST sex offenses happen in the family or the inner circle of the child. According to the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, these sex offender registries are having the opposite affect of what they were intended for, they are putting children at risk. The registry grows everyday. If the sex offender registries were working, why are we seeing an 8% yearly growth? There are so many people, public urinaters, Romeo and Juliet lovers, and so on that are on these registries, they are just plain useless. Additionally, according to the Department of Justice's own statistics, around 40% of the folks on the Sex Offender Registry are juveniles themselves. Their offense was youthful inquisitiveness or misguided youthful passion, nothing more. What the registries do accomplish is to shame and humiliate the low risk former offenders and their wives, children, parents and siblings. Let me restate this, the only children that the sex offender registries are having an impact on are the children of the 600,000 sex offenders and former sex offenders who have paid their debt to society, accomplished their therapy and are on the registry by law. Again, the collateral damage of these registries is staggering. Name ONE child that the Sex Offender Registry saved. I can't name one either! As far as proximity or banishment laws, just let me quote a statement regarding the effectiveness of Iowa's Sex Offender Registry and Proximity laws, by Sgt. Bryce Smith, who has charge of monitoring the registry in Scott County (Iowa). He said; "If the 2,000-foot rule had been in effect 10 years ago, I can't think of a single case from our files that would have been any different."

The media is a large part of the problem, intent on ratings and advertising dollars, they are content with myths, and misconceptions in lieu of truth and facts. Here is just a quick example, their use of the word pedophile to describe all sex crimes against those under 18. Pedophile means someone attracted to and obsesses of pre-pubescent children. Studies by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services show that less than 29% of sex offenses are against children under age twelve. We are led to believe investigative journalist actually do research, however night after night, myth after myth, lie after lie, they fuel the sex offender panic. Here is an even more telling example. The media tell us that harsh sex offender laws make us safer. However, according to the United Nations Survey of Crime Trends in the industrialized nations, women in the United Sates are twice more likely to suffer rape than in Sweden or Denmark, and three times more likely than in Germany and around five times more likely than in England. Can someone please tell me how myths and misconceptions make our society safer?

At the end of the day, the original intent of the sex offender registry was designed to keep track of the most violent and predatory offenders, not low-risk intra-familial offenders, former offenders, or juveniles experimenting around. These registries are a very slippery slope indeed. Somebody else is going to be next, many states have started or proposed other types of registries, such as a meth cookers registries, people ACCUSED of a sex crimes, A DUI registry is just around the corner and some local jurisdictions already have one. Do you really think that you and your loved ones are safe from being on a registry or safe because of the existence of one? Just think how we have allowed myths and misconceptions to affect our thinking and beliefs. Thanks to the media, we throw the word predator around so much now that it has lost its meaning. Ask yourself, are people that had a teen-age love affair and are now married to their teen-age lover and are raising children a predator? When you leave here today, remember there are children as young as 12 years old on the sex offender registry, is that the legacy you want to leave to your children and grandchildren?

In closing I ask you to continue this conversation when you get home, continue this conversation tomorrow and the next day. Continue this conversation with you friends, co-workers, neighbors, and especially with your elected representatives. Tell them the citizens of this country deserve better than election year sound bites. We deserve better than myths, lies, and misconceptions. We not only deserve the facts and truths, we need them to make all families, all children safe and secure in their own homes. Tell them you are against the discrimination, against the disenfranchisement of the wives, children, parents and siblings of former offenders, who are low risk. Tell them you want the Sex Offender Registry returned to its original intent, to track the most violent and predatory offenders and absconders. Tell them, it is just plain wrong to treat everyone the same, we do not do it with people convicted of property theft, we do not do it with drug and alcohol abusers, and we should not do it with sex offenders. What is right is right and what is wrong is wrong. It is just plain wrong to treat my family, my child, the same as Couey, Edwards or Duncan. It's WRONG – period end of story. Remember, what happened to my family can happen to yours, all it takes in one accusation – true of false, or one moment of carelessness misread by a mandatory reporter. Continue the conversation, educate yourself, and protect your family. Thank you and God bless you and our country.

Given at the "Silent No More" rally in Columbus, Ohio - December 1, 2007