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At a time when public awareness of child molesters and rapists has never been more acute, arrests for sex offenses have been dropping steadily for almost a decade.
FBI reports show that arrests are down across the country, including Arizona, where the numbers have fallen from more than 2,000 in 1997 to 1,500 last year. Criminal-justice experts are uncertain about the reason.
At the same time, new federal and state laws are cracking down on convicted offenders like never before. Some Arizona laws just took effect or will likely be proposed in coming months:
- The state would send e-mail blast notices to residents warning when a sex offender moved into their neighborhood. Residents could sign up for the alerts.
- A state sex-offender Web site could carry the names, photos and locations of thousands of low-level offenders. Now, it posts only the most serious ones, about a quarter of all registered offenders. The change would keep offenders on the site for 15 years, 25 years or life, depending on the crime.
- As of September, a new law prohibits higher-risk offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school or day-care facility. An Arizona Republic database analysis found that at least 298 now live within 1,000 feet of a school or day-care center in Maricopa County.
The Georgia Supreme Court this week tossed out a similar residency law, saying it is unconstitutional to prohibit where sex offenders can live.
For some experts, the declining arrests in the middle of intense public scrutiny is a mystery. The decline in both reported rapes and arrests for sex offenses nationwide began in the early 1990s, before many of today's get-tough measures were implemented.
Other officials say the drop in sex-offense rates and heightened monitoring go hand in hand.
"I think greater public awareness is part of it," said Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler. "It all leads to a decline."
Robson last year sponsored a law that requires registered sex offenders to disclose their e-mail addresses, instant-messaging names and profiles on social-networking sites such as My Space.
He said he is considering pushing a bill next year to prohibit the use of online aliases. He said it is important for laws to keep pace with technology, adding that he is never surprised at "what the criminal mind can conceive."
One of the ironies of the greater scrutiny is the focus on sexual assaults involving strangers. The vast majority of sex offenses are committed by relatives or friends of the victim.
The toughest new laws have arisen from stomach-churning cases involving child abduction and murder by a stranger. Seven-year-old Megan Kanka, for example, was kidnapped, raped and killed in 1994 in New Jersey by a violent repeat sex offender living across the street. Kanka's death inspired Megan's Law, which requires police departments across the country to notify residents when a registered sex offender moves into their neighborhood.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that there are 603,000 registered sex offenders nationwide. However, the agency maintains that 100,000 of those offenders have failed to keep their registration current and that no one knows where they are.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety reports about 14,500 registered sex offenders live in the state. But the names and photos of only the worst 3,266 offenders appear on its public Web site for monitoring offenders.
Treating sex offenders
Could treatment be a factor in declining sex offenses?
If so, recidivism studies shed a cloudy light. Various studies over decades have found a wide range of recidivism rates. Findings appear to vary according to type of offense and victim, how recidivism is defined and other factors. One Canadian study in 1998 found a recidivism rate of 13 percent for child molesters over four to five years. Another in 2004 found that over 25 years, three in five sex offenders commit a sex crime again.
Sandra Nettles, a licensed clinical social worker with Deer Valley Counseling in Phoenix, says statistics show there is low a recidivism rate among offenders who successfully complete treatment. She works with the state parole department and treats as many as 60 sex offenders a week.
"A one- or two-year treatment program is effective, but it only works as good as a person wants it to work," Nettles said. "They deserve a chance. . . . If they are not allowed to be a pro-social citizen, then they should not let them out (of prison)."