Where’s the Evidence for Sex Offender Registries
Let’s see your evidence. Evidence-based practices are all the rage now. Legislators are interested in data. Foundations want to see the evidence before funding a new project. Reform is a no-go unless there is solid evidence to support it.
It’s better than not having evidence. OK—that’s better than “no evidence based practices”, right? And it’s better than anecdotal or “outrageous crime du jour” law making that we have seen in Kentucky for decades. Like—my Aunt Minnie’s grave was robbed of its plastic flowers so let’s make that a Class D felony.
Let’s grant that we should have solid data before engaging in some sort of new criminal justice policy.
Will some of our latest policy initiatives pass muster?
The Shaun Webb story. There was a recent story out of Michigan about Shaun Webb, a 37 year old man convicted of a misdemeanor sex offense for which he received a 7 month jail sentence. He denies having committed the crime. The result? “Though a misdemeanor, state law demanded Webb be listed on the same public sex offender registry as hard-core rapists, pedophiles and other felons. It has meant a decade of poverty, unemployment, harassment and depression for him. Under current state law, he'll be on the list until 2031.” You can read his story here.
The aftermath. Webb is in the community now after serving his 7 month sentence, but he is no longer a contributing citizen. He was fired from his job at a Catholic church. No one will hire him. His ex-wife, who believes he was wrongfully accused, also says that the charges and the aftermath destroyed their marriage. People in his community put up flyers about him. He was even harassed from long distance. “A woman in Florida he has never met, a self-proclaimed vigilante, tracks his every move online, calling him names and taunting him as a child rapist.”
The scope of the problem. The article notes that there are 43,000 on the sex offender registry in Michigan alone. It notes too that there are over 800,000 names on registries nationwide. That’s a lot of people whose lives are ruined, whose marriages have ended, and who cannot find work.
But isn’t it worth it? Yet isn’t it worth it if children are safer, if recidivism is reduced, if lives are saved? Unfortunately, I remember when these laws were being passed in the states, and I do not recall any talk of the evidence supporting the need for registries, or for living restrictions. Now research is demonstrating that they do little good. “A 2010 study by the American Journal of Public Health, examining sex offender laws nationwide and the best way to reduce recidivism, noted: ‘Research to date indicates that after 15 years the laws have had little impact on recidivism rates and the incidence of sexually based crimes.’ Instead, the study found, ‘The most significant impact of these laws seems only to be numerous collateral consequences for communities, registered sex offenders — including a potential increased risk for recidivism — and their family members.’"
Opinion replaces evidence based practices. Surely in this time of reliance upon data and research, the tide is turning, right? But listen to Michigan legislator Rick Jones, who “questions the research that shows sex offenders are much less likely to re-offend and that the majority of those on the registry pose no threat.’ ‘I have 31 years of experience in police work, and as a retired sheriff in Eaton County I formed some very strong opinions that the science is still not clear for pedophiles. I believe it is society's duty to keep pedophiles from children so that the temptation isn't there. So I say you need to stay a thousand feet from schools.’"
What other examples of no evidence based policies do we have? Try this at home and see how many of the laws in your state are based upon solid research, and how many are based upon some legislator’s gut? How about these assumptions, for example?
· The death penalty deters crime.
· Taking away a person’s right to vote for the rest of his life is an effective way to punish someone for a crime.
· Taking away things like Pell Grants, SNAP benefits, federal housing, the right to work in a licensed field, are effective ways to ensure that people won’t commit crimes or if they do they won’t commit them again.
Perhaps it is time to take a hard look not only at our sex offender laws but all of our laws that make America ground zero for the prison-industrial complex.