Sunday, December 2, 2012

FL - New study finds federal sex offender law not effective

Original Article


By Jill Levenson

New data driven system called for in new report

According to a report released last week (PDF) by the U.S. Department of Justice, the federal tier-based sex offender registration and management system put in place in 2006 does not predict risk of recidivism by sex offenders and its authors point to the need for a system based on more empirical data.

Title 1 of the Adam Walsh Act (called SORNA – Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act), passed by Congress in 2006, sought to improve and standardize sex offender registration and management procedures by requiring all states to implement the same three-tier classification system according to the offense of conviction—Tier 1 being the least serious and Tier 3 being the most serious. The system assumed that the more serious the offense the higher the risk of a repeated crime by the offender.

"The offense-based classification system adopted by the Adam Walsh Act was developed without empirical validation," said Jill Levenson, an associate professor of human services in Lynn University's College of Liberal Education and one of the researchers on the project. "Therefore the essential question is whether this classification system accurately represents the risk of re-offense and leads to more effective sex offender management."

The study (PDF), funded by the National Institute of Justice, collected data about 1,789 adult male sex offenders released from prisons in Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey and South Carolina. The sex offenders were tracked for up to 10 years. After 5 years, 5.1 percent of them had been rearrested for a new sexual crime, and after 10 years, the sexual rearrest rate was 10.2 percent.

Tier level was not significantly associated with recidivism in New Jersey, Minnesota and South Carolina and was inversely associated with recidivism in Florida (PDF)—the only state in the study's sample that has been certified as substantially compliant with the federal Adam Walsh Act.

"We investigated whether SORNA tiers were correlated with risk assessments and recidivism rates. If SORNA designations correctly identify higher risk offenders, then we would expect cases with Tier 3 offenders to have higher risk scores and higher rates of recidivism," explained Levenson. "What we found, however, was that Tier 3 offenders were consistently associated with lower risk scores and lower recidivism rates."

The researchers concluded that actuarial risk assessment instruments, which are created by putting together risk factors found by research to correlate with reoffending, consistently outperformed the tier system mandated by federal law. The tiering systems already in use by the states also did a better job than SORNA tiers in predicting which sex offenders will go on to be rearrested for a new sex crime.

States that fail to comply with the law are penalized with a reduction in their federal criminal justice funding. So far, only 16 states have passed legislation complying with the federal requirements.

"The findings call into question the accuracy and utility of the federal classification system in detecting high-risk sex offenders and applying concordant risk management strategies," said Levenson. "If decision-making is to be driven by assigning offenders into defined risk classes, those categories must be determined by empirically-derived procedures so that they are more likely to correctly identify higher risk offenders. The public needs to be able to tell who poses the greatest threat to the community, and we need to make sure our limited resources are targeted toward those most likely to reoffend."

The team of researchers was led by Kristen Zgoba, director of research at the New Jersey Department of Corrections, and Michael Miner, a professor in human sexuality at University of Minnesota. The team also included Ray Knight of Brandeis University, Elizabeth Letourneau of Johns Hopkins, and David Thornton, who runs the Sand Ridge secure sex offender treatment center in Wisconsin. Read the full report online (PDF).

More on Levenson

Jill Levenson is an associate professor of human services at Lynn University and a licensed clinical social worker with over 20 years of experience treating sexual abuse victims, survivors, perpetrators and non-offending parents. Her academic focus is on sexual abuse and how offenders are categorized and treated.

Levenson is a nationally known expert on sexual violence and has become a respected authority on, among other things, laws aimed at protecting children while punishing, tracking and rehabilitating sex offenders. She has been quoted in national publications including the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, among others. She has published over 60 articles about sex crime policy and offender treatment.

AZ - Hundreds of Arizona's sex offenders unaccounted for

Original Article

This is a well written article which shows the problems with the laws. See some other comments here.


By Michelle Ye Hee Lee

Arizona's system of tracking and monitoring sex offenders is failing, with nearly a third of the state's high-risk, registered offenders unaccounted for at some point during 2012.

Some also are homeless and living on city sidewalks and vacant lots because they have nowhere to go but the streets when released from prison. Going home is often not an option because family and friends have shunned them. Finding even temporary housing is difficult because most employers won't hire them, homeless shelters have banned them, and a patchwork of state and local laws restrict where they can live.

Nonetheless, state law requires their registration to an address or "place of residence." So authorities have created an unsettling situation: permitting clusters of homeless offenders to register to central Phoenix and Tucson street corners.

An Arizona Republic analysis of nearly 5,700 high-risk offender registrations found large concentrations of offenders in the central areas of Arizona's two largest cities.

About one-third of these high-risk offenders had an unverified address at some point during the seven months The Republic conducted its analysis, meaning authorities could not report precisely where they were and the state database did not contain the current address of the offender.

Nearly 200 offenders were homeless statewide as of Nov. 7, many registered to street corners or intersections close to homeless shelters, where they have access to social services -- but where they are no longer allowed to stay overnight. As darkness falls in these neighborhoods, dozens of the urban nomads can be seen spreading out cardboard and sleeping bags, creating makeshift bedrooms on sidewalks and vacant lots.

Though it is a potential crime for those convicted of dangerous crimes against children to live within 1,000 feet of schools and day-care centers, police working the streets struggle to discern whether offenders are complying with the distance restrictions. To do so requires research on the nature of their offense -- determining if the law classifies it as a dangerous crime against children -- and whether the offenders' assigned risk levels prohibit their being at certain locations. Meanwhile, some sex offenders are registered to Phoenix street corners near such facilities.

Conflicting policies, rules and laws disperse responsibility for these homeless offenders, meaning some individuals evade registration because no single agency can be held accountable. At least five agencies have some role in tracking sex offenders. Most acknowledge difficulties in meeting their mission.

There is no evidence that sexual crimes have spiked in areas where offenders are clustered. In fact, the recidivism rate among registered sex offenders in Phoenix was found by one local study to be roughly 6 percent. The national average was pegged at 5.3 percent in a 2003 study by the U.S. Department of Justice.

But there is reason for concern when registered sex offenders are homeless or unaccounted for: If one in 17 is likely to re-offend and some are not being tracked, the public may be at risk. And studies show the likelihood of re-offending is higher when sex offenders have no support system or are driven to the social fringes. Experts warn that policy makers should improve the tracking of these offenders and find solutions to their homelessness before a horrendous crime is committed by one of these offenders.

Indeed, local and state policy makers have long known about the problem but have made no coordinated effort to fix it. Instead, apathy and unwillingness to dedicate taxpayer money to a long-term solution leave agencies with overlapping responsibilities pointing fingers at each other.

The Phoenix City Council commissioned a study in 2005 to evaluate solutions to sex-offender clusters and homelessness, but ignored most of its recommendations despite the study's warning that the registry system needed repair.

There is little political incentive or public pressure to change the current monitoring system or to dedicate taxpayer money to housing for a group of ex-cons viewed largely as social pariahs.

But Arizona Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, said the time to act is approaching.

"There's no choice but coming up with some way to ... monitor these individuals," said Taylor, the incoming Senate minority leader. "There are a lot of things we have to address this coming session, and certainly this should be one."

David Bridge, managing director of the Human Services Campus, a central Phoenix non-profit that helps reintegrate the homeless into society, said the practice of registering sex offenders to street corners benefits no one -- not the public, not the offenders, and not the government agencies spending taxpayer money on short-term solutions.

"It's a time bomb," Bridge said.

Regulatory web

Convicted sex offenders released from prison must register within 10 days, notifying the sheriff of the county and local police of the city where they plan to live. Those who move to a new address must re-register within 72 hours. That information is forwarded to the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which maintains a public sex-offenders database.

Offenders released into homelessness must comply with the requirement by providing a general description of the place where they plan to be transient -- near a shelter, for example, or at a specific intersection. The location must be updated with the sheriff's office every three months.

The Arizona Department of Corrections supervises offenders whose prison terms are nearing an end and who have not been assigned probation. Those whose sentences carried with them post-release conditions are subject to community supervision by the DOC for the final 15 percent of their sentence. The DOC works to reintegrate them into society, placing them on the equivalent of parole outside the prison. They are required to wear GPS tracking devices during that time if they are homeless or were convicted of dangerous crimes against children.

County probation officers, meanwhile, are charged with monitoring offenders who were sentenced to serve probation either upon their release from prison or completion of community supervision. If these offenders are transient or homeless, they also must wear a GPS tracking device for as long as they have no specific address.

But there are shortcomings to the system. Once such offenders complete court-ordered supervision, they are no longer tracked. Though they are required to periodically re-register, there is no system to verify their whereabouts.

Locating homeless individuals can often seem like a futile proposition. Making sure non-monitored, homeless offenders keep their registrations up to date is also daunting. So checking in with them regularly at a designated corner near social-service centers became the most effective method for authorities to keep tabs on them.

State law assigns local police to enforce sex-offender registrations. The Phoenix Police Department's South Mountain Precinct walking-beat squad, for example, verifies the registered addresses of sex offenders it comes in contact with on the streets of central Phoenix, particularly near the Human Services Campus. Often, the first sign that offenders are not living at their registered address is when they get into trouble with police. At that point, the onus is on police to figure out where the offender should be and whether he has complied with state registration requirements or probation.

The Phoenix Police Department's Sex Offender Notification Unit refers repeated registration violations to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, but prosecutions are difficult if offenders are homeless. Though warrants may be issued for those whose registrations have expired, they often are not found until they commit another crime.

"It is more difficult to prosecute somebody that is transient," said Rachel Mitchell, chief of the county attorney's Sex Crimes Bureau. This year, the office had 38 failure-to-register cases set for trial.

Nowhere to go

Government policies and social pressures contribute to the homelessness that makes sex offenders so difficult to track.

Many have nowhere to go when released from prison. They tend not to be welcome back home because their families have shunned them. They may have committed sex crimes against family members, or the law may restrict their proximity to children.

Until 2008, one option was Central Arizona Shelter Services, the largest homeless shelter in Arizona and a popular destination because of its social services. Offenders there had concrete addresses and lived in close proximity to those monitoring them.

But CASS was overwhelmed by sex offenders using its facilities. During fiscal 2006-07, the shelter housed 436 higher-risk sex offenders. And after a sex-offender resident assaulted a child at a nearby park in 2007, CASS donors threatened to withdraw their support. The shelter closed its doors to sex offenders.

That left the displaced with two alternatives: find rental housing or sleep on the streets.

Rental housing is frequently out of reach because sex offenders have more trouble than other felons finding jobs and reintegrating into society.

State crime-free housing laws passed in 2005 limit the number and type of convicts allowed to live in any one residential complex. And in Phoenix, a municipal program on residential safety discourages landlords from renting to convicted felons, including sex offenders. The state and city restrictions are intended to discourage clusters of sex offenders in residential neighborhoods.

Even if sex offenders find a landlord willing to rent to them, they often don't have the means to pay for it. The term "sex offender" raises flags with potential employers. Offenders don't compete well against applicants with clean records or non-sexual offenses. Fast-food restaurants won't hire convicted sex offenders because children patronize their establishments.

"They're like 'I've got nowhere to go. I can't go to the shelter. I can't go to the outreach shelter anymore. Where do we go?' And they have a point," said Phoenix police Sgt. Brian Freudenthal, who oversees South Mountain Precinct walking-beat officers monitoring central Phoenix.

While some Phoenix-area apartments, hotels and motels are willing to bend the rules for sex offenders by renting to them on a weekly basis, offenders, their supervisors and police all say it is often at inflated prices that are difficult to pay without a stable, well-paying job. One probation officer said a studio apartment without a kitchen can cost a sex offender up to $700 a month.

The result: People like [name withheld], 60, expect to spend the rest of their lives on the streets. A convicted child molester, [name withheld] has been in and out of prison so many times on subsequent charges that he can't remember how many stints he has served behind bars.

[name withheld], wearing a close shave and a filthy sleeveless shirt, spoke candidly about his life one night earlier this year as he readied a place to sleep on a sidewalk on the east side of Sixth Avenue near Buchanan Street. He was registered to Seventh Avenue and Buchanan -- around the corner from Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary School, 707 W. Grant St.

[name withheld] laughed when asked if he has tried to find a job. He said he checks "yes" next to the question on employment applications asking if he is a convicted felon. But he said he does not write an explanation, hoping for an opportunity to explain his situation in a job interview.

He rarely gets that chance.

"I'm gonna be homeless for a while," [name withheld] said.

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