By James Mayse
While sex offender registries do inform public about who might be living nearby, they don't warn people against more likely threat — the potential offender who is already in their lives
Sex offender registries were created as a response to several heinous crimes where the victim was attacked by an offender who had served time in prison and been released without the public's knowledge. The theory behind registries is that when people know where a convicted offender lives, they can take precautions to keep themselves and their families safe.
Sex offenders can potentially pose a threat; according to the head of sex offender treatment programs with the Kentucky Department of Corrections, recidivism rates for offenders can range between 7 and 14 percent — although recidivism rates are lower with inmates who have successfully completed counseling.
- And they take any additional crime or technicality as recidivism, but if you take into account only new sex crimes, then the recidivism (re-offense) is much lower.
But while sex offender registries do inform the public about who might be living nearby, they don't (and can't) warn people against the more likely threat — the potential offender who is already in their lives. Most sexual assaults and instances of child sexual abuse are committed not by strangers, but by someone known to the victim.
But sex offender registries can provide a service. Aside from highlighting known offenders in the area, registries can be used as investigative tools for law enforcement in some instances. Child advocates say registries should be used by parents to know who is attempting to establish a relationship with their children — and as tools to teach children about how to establish boundaries against potential predators.
- Police already have access to criminal records, so why is a new online shaming tool needed in order for them to investigate a crime? And why do we not have an online registry for all other ex-felons if it's so useful?
What is the registry?
The sex offender registry was formed through several laws — "Megan's Law" is the perhaps the best-known — that established tracking systems for convicted sex offenders and state and federal public notification systems of where convicted offenders reside. The goal of public notification systems such as Kentucky's sex offender registry website, is to provide information about residences of convicted sex offenders so, if people choose, they can monitor who they and their families interact with in their neighborhoods.
- Okay, but what about all the other dangerous people who are not on the online sex offender registry?
Almost all sex-related crimes in Kentucky require a convicted person to be placed on the sex offender registry. All classifications of rapes and sexual abuse, incest, sodomy and first-degree unlawful transaction with a minor (illegal sex act) are included in the registry. People convicted of sexual misconduct, a misdemeanor, are not required to register.
In Kentucky, people convicted of sexual offenses that fall under the registration requirement are ordered to register either for 20 years or for life. Any change of address in that time period must be reported to the registry, which is maintained by the Kentucky State Police. Failure to inform the registry of an address change is a Class D felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
In addition to the address notification, the registry places prohibitions on where a convicted sex offender can live, if the person was convicted after 2006. For example, the registry forbids a convicted sex offender from living within 1,000 feet of a school or day care center. The registry does not prevent church attendance — although the Daviess County Commonwealth's Attorney's office does get calls from ministers who are unsure of the law.
"I get calls from churches about registered sex offenders — if they're allowed to go to church there," said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Van Meter, who prosecutes most of the sexual abuse cases in Daviess County.
Does the registry prevent sex offenses?
The effectiveness of the sex offender registry as prevention tool is hard to determine, because it's impossible to prove a negative. If an offender lives in a neighborhood for 20 years and does not commit a new offense, is it because the public was informed about the offender via the registry, that the registry had a deterrent effect on the offender, or that the offender benefited from counseling while incarcerated?
A 2001 study published in the University of Chicago Journal of Law and Economics found there were fewer new offenses among convicted sex offenders when they were required to register with police departments, but their addresses were not posted on a publicly accessible website. The study, which used data from 15 states over a 10-year period, found new crimes by convicted offenders were reduced through better police monitoring of offenders.
- And we find that highly questionable. How can you prove that police monitoring was the cause of reduced sexual crimes?
On the other hand, the same study found making sex offender registries accessible to the public might increase the chance a person on the registry reoffends, because "when their information is made public ... the associated psychological, social and financial costs (of being included on the registry) make a crime-free life relatively less desirable."
- True, but all the laws also make it almost impossible for many to function in life by having employment and housing, which also increases the risk of a re-offense. By having the information online accessible by anybody without verification of their "need to know," has increased vigilantism across the country.
While officials say the registries have some use, they are geared more toward helping a person investigate and take precautions against people they do not know. Incidents of sexual assault where the perpetrator was a stranger to the victim certainly do occur, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, the perpetrator is someone the victim knows.
"I very rarely have what I'd term a stranger rape where the victim does not know the defendant," Van Meter said. "I do have those, but the majority ... are well-known" to the victim, Van Meter said.
"The registry does not prevent that," Van Meter said. "The registry would be more appropriate to the stranger situation, but at least 95 percent (of incidents) are not the stranger" variety, he said.
Registries might work as a deterrent to potential first-time offenders, Van Meter said.
"The knowledge of, if you commit a sex crime you're going to be on the registry and be a social pariah, I believe that is a deterrent," Van Meter said.
- Then why does the registry continue to grow on a daily basis? It's also a personal opinion that is not backed by facts.
A study (PDF) by University of Michigan professor J.J. Prescott reached a similar conclusion. Prescott estimated that the stigma of being on the registry deters 1.17 crimes per 100,000 people.
Others were not so sure; Dr James Van Nort, head of sex offender treatment programs for the Kentucky Department of Corrections, said he doubted that the anxiety of appearing on a registry deterred many sexual offenses.
"I would think going to prison would be more of a deterrent than being on a sex offender registry," Van Nort said.
Van Meter said that defendants think that being required to register was an additional punishment.
- It is!
"Often times, the defendant will (offer to) accept a higher term of years in prison rather than register as a sex offender," Van Meter said."I believe it's considered a punishment by the victims as well — 99 percent of the time, that's a requirement (of the plea agreement). They want that registration."
- And by choosing to spend more time in prison in order to not appear on the registry is wrong. When you get out, you will still be required to register. The registry is punitive and therefore is unconstitutional!
How law enforcement use the registry
As a law enforcement tool, the sex offender registry does have some uses. Detective Brandon Sims with the Owensboro Police Department said detectives use the registry when they receive a complaint that a person convicted of a sexual offense is not living at the address on the registry.
- So why can't you use the normal criminal records like you did before the sex offender registry was created?
"Part of my job as a juvenile detective is, if complaints are made against people (for noncompliance with the registry), myself and the other detectives look into that, which happens more often than people might think," Sims said.
In cases of sexual abuse, detectives do not need to consult the registry, because detectives already have access to a suspect's criminal history — such as whether or not they're a registered sex offender, Sims said. But detectives have used the registry to investigate other crimes.
- And this proves our point! If you already have criminal records, why is an online shaming (punishment) list necessary?
"I know one instance where a detective was investigating a theft —we knew (the suspect) was a sex offender," so consulting the registry for the suspect's address gave detectives "a starting point on where to look," Sims said.
- We fail to see how the online registry is helping you any more than the already available criminal records? If you knew he was a sex offender, then you also knew his name, which you could have found the address in the usual fashion!
Detective Morgan Palmiter with the Daviess County Sheriff's Department said the registry has been used to solve reports of sexual abuse. In one case, a victim was able to identify her attacker by looking through the sex offender registry.
Like the police department, the sheriff's department also investigates complaints that a person in not living where they are listed on the registry, or is living within 1,000 feet of a school or day care center.
"There are times I myself check (the registry for the) area where I live, for my and my family's benefit," Palmiter said.
Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law and the Crime Prevention Center, a New York nonprofit organization, said the registry is important and people can use it to take precautions against potential predators in their area.
- This lady, in our opinion, should not even be consulted for issues like this. She's known to be a vigilante, as seen here.
In addition, parents should use information from the registry, in an age-appropriate way, to educate their children about issues such as body privacy, boundaries and how to tell when someone behaves in a inappropriate way toward them, Ahearn said.
- So why can't you do that without the registry? You are just trying to justify having the online punishment list for your own personal reasons, in our opinion. You need to be a parent and teach this to your kids even if the online hit-list didn't exist!
"What you want to be really careful about is not exposing (young children) to too much information," Ahearn said "We want to educate kids on circumstances and behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable and empower them to tell someone."
- All of which can be done without the online registry!
Sex offenders who target children will "groom" both the potential victim and the victim's parents by increasingly violating boundaries, Ahearn said.
- And if you are smart and paying attention, then it wouldn't be much of an issue, because then you'd tell the person to stop and leave, or contact the police, right? You know, like you would do in any other situation!
"What parents need to look out for is if someone wants to spend more time with your children than with you," Ahearn said. "We teach parents they need to be careful about the role they let others play in their child's life —there's no reason someone should be offering to take your child along" to events, Ahearn said.
- And this is good advise, but we fail to see why you need an online shaming hit-list to do this?
Parents should beware of people who give children gifts, Ahearn said. With teens, a predator will try to "conquer and divide" the teen from his or her parents, by telling the teen that their parents are being to harsh and limiting the teen's freedom, Ahearn said.
"A sexual predator seduces a child the same way they seduce an adult," Ahrean said. What's important is setting boundaries with people and enforcing them; for example, if someone offers a child a gift, the parent should accept the gift for them — which teaches the child not to accept gifts without the parent's permission, Ahearn said.
"They're developing a relationship (with gifts), and that relationship is not known to the parent," Ahearn said. "If you want to protect your child from sexual predators, you have to set out rules" and not let people push you into allowing them to interact with your child in a way you find uncomfortable, Ahearn said.
"One of (our) 10 rules is, ‘I wouldn't be too polite' " about protecting boundaries, Ahearn said.