Is Our Approach to Sex Offender Risk and Policy on the Mark?
By Michelle Beshears, professor of criminal justice at American Military University
Sex offender registration laws and policies appear to have been based on popular misconceptions regarding sex offenders. That is, law and policy were based on the premise that ALL sex offenders are a danger to society, a danger to children, strangers to their victims, and likely to reoffend (Levenson & D’Amora, 2007).
However, this is not the case.
In some states where laws have been applied retroactively, persons who have been charged with indecent exposure (such as urinating in public) have been required to register as a sex offender (Freeman-Longo, 2001). Additionally, several teenagers have been found guilty of the recent trend of “sexting” and must now register as sex offenders. The problem is, not all sexual offenders have committed sexual crimes against children, yet the majority of the laws are focused on protecting children from sex offenders.
The Need for Better Risk Assessment Strategies
Most policy initiatives have not incorporated risk assessment strategies into their programs. Instead, they are applied broadly to all sex offenders. This flaw has been acknowledged and risk assessment has been included in more recent studies (Parent, Guay, & Knight, 2011). Additionally, the percentage of recidivism rates of sex offenders have been relatively low, as only a small percentage of convicted sex offenders have returned to prison because of committing additional sex crimes (Bonnar-Kidd, 2010; Galeste, Fradella, & Vogel, 2012).
In a three-year follow-up study of sex offenders in 15 states, the rate of recidivism was about 5.3% (Galeste et al., 2012). This has been compared to recidivism rates over a three-year study of other crimes; offenders who committed burglary recidivated 74%, larceny 75%, and theft 70% (Galeste et al., 2012).
Increased Restrictions Foster Unanticipated Issues
Despite these findings, restrictions for sex offenders have expanded even further since the implementation of the first sex registration and notification laws. Many states have now enacted housing restriction statutes and zoning ordinances (Schiavone & Jeglic, 2009). These statutes have prohibited sex offenders from living in areas that are within a specific proximity of children (Schiavone & Jeglic, 2009). State laws have specified that sex offenders are forbidden to live in areas where children congregate, such as schools, daycare centers, parks, and school bus stops (Schiavone & Jeglic, 2009). This has prevented sex offenders from living in many areas.
Some states have imposed such severe restrictions that it has left a large number of sex offenders homeless (Bonnar-Kidd, 2010). For example, Proposition 83 is a law passed in California that prohibits sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park (Bonnar-Kidd, 2010). The reason for the passing of Proposition 83 was because California was reported to have the greatest population of repeat sex offenders (RSOs) and subsequently, this proposition would allow for improved tracking and apprehension of them (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2010). Subsequently, approximately 2,700 sex offenders were forced to move, and many ended up homeless (Bonnar-Kidd, 2010).
Enhanced Legislation Increases Number of Offenders, But is it Fair and Accurate?
The result of increased legislation has had an impact on the number of sex offenders in the national and state registries. The number of sex offenders living in the United States has increased greatly over the past few years. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children survey of sex offenders for 2012 showed that there were approximately 747,408 RSOs living in the U.S. Those numbers increased from the 2011 survey, which indicated an estimated 739,853 living in the U.S. (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, News and Events, 2012).
The numbers have continued to rise each year, but an even more disturbing issue is the number of unaccounted sex offenders (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, News and Events, 2012). In 2007, there were approximately 100,000 RSOs who were unaccounted for or noncompliant in terms of registering and as of January 2012, there were more than 31,000 noncompliant or fugitive sex offenders (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, News and Events, 2012).
While these numbers may be a cause for concern, what is more concerning is the number of offenders who should probably not even be on the registry to begin with. Another consideration is the lives that may have been unjustly affected in a negative way as a result of this policy. Lastly, the mandate is costly and man-hour intensive, so researchers are calling for an examination of more evidence-based practices with regard to the treatment of sex offenders.
About the Author: Michelle L. Beshears earned her baccalaureate degrees in social psychology and criminal justice and graduate degrees in human resource development and criminology from Indiana State University. Beshears served in the U.S. Army for 11 years. She obtained the rank of Staff Sergeant prior to attending Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia where she earned her commission. As a commissioned officer Beshears has led numerous criminal investigations and worked with several external agencies as well. As a civilian she has worked with the local sheriff’s department, state drug task force and FBI. Michelle is currently pursuing her Doctorate degree in Criminal Justice. Beshears resides with her husband Michael, their son Hunter, and daughter Malia near Norfork and Bull Shoals Lakes, in Clarkridge, Arkansas. Michelle is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at American Military University & American Public University and is full-time faculty in the School of Public Service & Health. You can contact her at michelle.beshears(at)mycampus.apus.edu.
Bonnar-Kidd, K., (2010). Sexual offender laws and prevention of sexual violence recidivism. American Journal of Public Health, 100(3), 412-419. doi:10.2105/ AJPH.2008.153254
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. (2010). Jessica’s Law. Retrieved from http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/parole/sex_offender_facts/ jessicas_law.html
Freeman-Longo, R. E. (2001). Revisiting Megan’s Law and sex offender registration: Prevention or problem. Retrieved from http://www.appa-net.org/eweb/docs/ appa/pubs/RML.pdf
Galeste, M. A., Fradella, H. F., & Vogel, B. (2012). Sex offender myths in print media: Separating fact from fiction in U.S. newspapers. Western Criminology Review, 13(2), 4-24. Retieved from http://wcr.sonoma.edu/
Levenson, J. S., & D’Amora, D.A. (2007). Social policies to prevent sexual violence: The emperor’s new clothes? Criminal Justice Policy Review, 18,168-199. doi:10.1177/ 0887403406295309
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (2012). News and events: Number of registered sex offenders in the US nears three-quarters of a million. Retrieved from http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/NewsEventServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US&PageId=4615
Parent, G., Guay, J., & Knight, R. A. (2011). An assessment of long-term risk of recidivism by adult sex offenders: One size doesn’t fit all. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 38(2), 188-209. doi:10.1177/0093854810388238
Schiavone, S. K., & Jeglic, E. L. (2009). Public perception of sex offender social policies and the impact on sex offenders. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 53(6), 679-695. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/ 0306624X08323454