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Rage vs. ReasonDung Hoang

Reason versus Rage (continued)

Myth #3: Online offender registries help communities keep their children safe.

Google the topic of online sex-offender registries and you’ll arrive soon enough at this sort of proclamation: “Online sex- offender registries are an essential resource.”

Minnesota was the first state to launch a registry, in 1991. That move came in the aftermath of the disappearance of an 11-year-old Minnesota boy, Jacob Wetterling, who has never been found. Three years later, the feds upped the ante, requiring states to maintain online registries that are open to the public. That requirement is often called “Megan’s Law,” as it went on the books after the rape and murder of a 7-year-old New Jersey girl, Megan Kanka, whose killer was both a neighbor and a twice-convicted sex offender.

Today, different states handle these registry requirements in different ways. The most aggressive require registration for a broad range of offenses and keep even one-time offenders listed for life. Others limit registration to offenders deemed especially dangerous.

Letourneau worked previously at the Medical University of South Carolina, where she conducted a series of studies seeking to measure the impact of that state’s aggressive approach to registration. Early on, she measured whether the registry law achieved its primary goal of reducing the number of offenders who commit new sex crimes.

The answer was no. Recidivism rates showed no significant change as the state adopted its registration law and then again as the online registry went public.

Letourneau’s follow-up work on this topic is fascinating, demonstrating that the registry has had significant unintended consequences. First, she conducted a pair of studies showing that prosecutors changed their approach to juvenile sex crimes after the registry requirement went into effect.

The first study showed that prosecutors became less likely to move forward with sex-crime charges once the registry was in place—cases were simply dismissed or diverted. The second study concluded that when prosecutors did move forward on cases, they became more likely to permit defendants to plea bargain into the assault category and out of the sex-crime category.

In both cases, Letourneau’s hypothesis is that prosecutors came to regard lifelong registration as a draconian penalty that didn’t fit the crime in a significant number of cases with youthful offenders. One important concern she voices about this finding is that the offenders end up receiving no follow-up or treatment geared specifically to their actual crimes.

Letourneau next looked at the outcomes of cases involving adult offenders that went to jury trials after the registry was launched. These are the cases, she says, that prosecutors tend to regard as slam-dunk wins as they head to trial. But she found that conviction rates in these cases declined after the public online registry was established.

“I’ve had prosecutors and attorneys of all stripes tell me about cases where the jury was deliberating and they asked the judge, ‘Will he have to go on the registry? Or will he just face time?’ It’s a punishment that’s just so harsh—juries were modifying their behavior. So we’re now setting some of these guys free—they’re completely exonerated. It’s unbelievable, but we have a policy that increases the likelihood of letting adult sex offenders go.”

Letourneau plans to build on this work at Johns Hopkins. Studies of the impact of registration in other states have yielded varying results, an outcome likely related to the different approaches taken. She is preparing to compare the results of juvenile registry policies in three states—one that aggressively registers a wide swath of offenders (Texas), one that takes a middle-of-the-road approach by giving discretion to prosecutors and judges (Maryland), and one whose conservative approach reserves the registration requirement for a very few offenders judged to be high risks (Oklahoma).

Letourneau raises one other question surrounding offender registries that deserves more attention going forward: What impact does being on a public registry have on the lives of ex-offenders, especially the ones sincerely trying to steer clear of future trouble?

“It can be very difficult for known sex offenders to maintain stable living conditions and stable jobs while on these registries,” Letourneau says. “And when you don’t have stable living conditions and stable social connections, it makes it more difficult to re-integrate into society.”

Berlin feels that registries are a prime example of what’s wrong with the way society is dealing with child sex abuse. “The goal is right—we need to protect these children,” he says. “But we need to do it in a way that’s going to work, a way that’s based on data, a way that’s cost-effective. We’re not doing that. What we’re doing instead is reacting to the emotion of the moment, and as understandable as that emotion is, it’s just not the right way to go. Effective public policy should be based upon evidence about what works best.”


This forum is closed
  • Dolores miller

    Philadelphia 06/13/2012 03:07:40 PM

    A person who has a drinking problem needs help! An adult Who rapes children needs to be put away for life! One subject I think you are all afraid of is there are just plain Evil people in this world. Thank God most people are not! Also, anytime a person faces and heals From abuse most do what they can to make a better society. I'm not saying It doesn't take time courage and love. It does. Please go to my website and read my book review. Peace,Dolores Miller

  • Nia Rico

    Los Angeles 06/15/2012 02:19:27 AM

    Dolores, with all due respect you are missing the point. I am totally on your side that these disgusting sexual child predators should be put away for their horrific crimes [for] the rest of their lives behind bars. But that is the emotional response the researchers are referring to. It's understandable and normal for us to feel and think that way and I'd probably want to hurt somebody real bad if I found out such a crime was committed against my own child. Having said that however, that is not the solution to what is such a pervasive problem in our society. We need prevention programs and those sickos need help! They are diseased just like an alcoholic or drug addict and until they can talk about it openly and get help to end the vicious cycle they will continue to act out their dirty little secrets hurting thousands and thousands of children who in turn will hurt thousands and thousands of other children. We need to put a stop to this and I applaud the researchers at Johns Hopkins for bringing this to the forefront and to those who are funding the program. Let's pray their studies will shed some light on this very dark issue.

  • Pamela Pine, PhD

    Glenn Dale, MD 06/17/2012 10:45:10 AM

    Stop the Silence: Stop Child Sexual Abuse, Inc. ("Stop the Silence,", has been working on the prevention and mitigation of child sexual abuse (CSA) through innovative and proven impactful programming with a public health approach for over 10 years. A plethora of information about both CSA prevention and treatment is available, and a great deal of information has been available for decades. There are now numerous smaller and larger organizations working on the issue, and recently, a number of organizations have been springing up around the nation and the world, as well as a coalitions forming to address it. Unfortunately, nearly everyone is working without the adequate resources to step up programming. The issue of lack of resources and other support is enormous. As a nation, as a world community, unless and until we are able to find a way to speak about it (without shying away or calling "monster," as the article points out), and help enable both policy makers and the public to address it as the public health issue it is, we will not be able to adequately conduct the work on either the prevention or treatment fronts - leaving open a whole new generation to be abused. As a more-than-concerned citizen, as a mother, and as the Founder of Stop the Silence, I implore the public to get involved (despite their discomfort) and policymakers to put the resources in place to address CSA as the public health epidemic (indeed, pandemic) that it is.

  • ayulestari 07/05/2012 11:28:18 AM

    save our generation

  • Matt

    USA 06/07/2013 03:16:16 AM

    One of the problems in the United States is that the "sex offender" laws which were originally implemented to protect children, starting with the Wetterling Act in the 90s, are now being implemented to aggressively prosecute children who "offend", when merely exploring their own curiosities. Of course, some children may need a little counseling and guidance if the trouble persists. But any child under the age of 14 being charged with "Lewd and Lascivious Acts with a Child Under 14" is asinine. A judiciary panel on an appellate hearing last year even remarked in their statements at how ridiculous it is that some "defendants" were even younger than the "victim"! It is time for change in this country. As Patty Wetterling herself has noted, we are targeting the wrong people.

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