Thursday, October 12, 2006

Sex Offenders

Sex offenders. They're constantly in the news. They're people who've done some truly horrible things. Some ex-offenders live among us, just like anyone else who has committed a crime and done their time. Maybe you don't think the punishments are harsh enough (I for one don't), but they've taken their punishment and are back in the community.

This post isn't really about sex offenders though, it's about a particular law.

Fitchburg city councilor Dean Tran has recently pushed for (and passed, on Sept 21st) a law to regulate where Level 2 and 3 sex offenders are allowed to live in the city of Fitchburg.

More accurately, it defines areas that sex offenders aren't allowed to move into. That forbidden ground would be within 1,000 feet of any playground, park, school, or day-care center in the city. The goal, of course, is to keep sex offenders out of the city.

In a June 22nd Boston Globe article, Tran was quoted:
``Make no mistake about this petition," Tran said. ``It does not ban sex offenders from coming into the city. We're not regulating their movements. We're just restricting them from living close to schools and other facilities where children are."
Nice choice of words, since their constitutional "right to travel" would clearly be restricted if you were "regulating their movements". Yet in the same article we're offered this nugget:
Tran said he did not intend for his proposal to exclude sex offenders from moving to Fitchburg, a city of 39,000 about 50 miles from Boston, but he hopes it is one of the petition's consequences. ``If that happens, it would be great," he said.
So he's not trying to keep them from coming to Fitchburg, he just hopes that's the effect it has.

On the surface, it sounds fine. Nobody wants sex offenders around children. Then again, nobody really wants sex offenders around anyone else either. After all, most sex offenses are committed against adults.

There are a number of problems with this law. First of all, most of Fitchburg is within 1,000 feet of one of these facilities. That severely limits the housing available. Great, right? Not if you live in one of the areas outside the law's range. Expect to have a lot of new sex offender neighbors. Furthermore, what do you think the impact is of having small areas of sex offenders clustered together? Property values in those areas may well drop, but worse than that recidivism rates may rise. Grouping sex offenders together isn't generally considered to be a good idea.

Police Chief Edward Cronin has already expressed concerns that the law may be not only nearly impossible to enforce, but also unconstitutional.

Unconstitutional how?

Similar laws have been challenged for infringing not only the right to travel, but the right to due process under the law, the right against self-incrimination and the right to family association and privacy. It has even been argued that such laws impose cruel and unusual punishment because the restriction is "the functional equivalent [of] the old sanction of banishment."

The chance of this law standing up to constitutional muster is low, in other words.

Now, a few basic facts about sex offenders. A 2003 US Department of Justice study found recidivism rates among child molesters to range from roughly 3.3% to 8%, depending on the subgroup being measured. While any recidivism is terrible, these are hardly high numbers when compared to other violent criminals.

In 2004 the state of Washington commissioned a detailed recidivism report of its felons (.pdf here). How did sex offenders rank?

Out of categories of assault, murder, burglary, manslaughter, property crimes, robberies, and sex crimes, sex crimes had the second lowest rate of recidivism (only manslaughter was lower). While their figures may not be universally applicable, they do provide a pretty clear image of where sex crimes (not just child molestation) fall within the grand scheme of things. It's just not as big a problem as people want you to believe.

Robberies had the highest recidivism rate in that study. Perhaps Mr. Tran should have proposed that convicted robbers not be allowed to live within 1,000 feet of convenience stores instead. It would likely have more impact. Or maybe they'd just take a car.

Oh yeah, that's another thing. Do sex offenders have a range of 1,000 feet or something? It takes all of two minutes to walk that far, at a pretty comfortable saunter. Do they have invisible tethers, or are we assuming that most child molestation occurs because the child wanders into the predator's back yard?

So it's a likely unconstitutional law that addresses what's really a fairly minor problem and even then it addresses it in a terribly naive way. Admittedly, it's a problem that's been blown way out of proportion by the media. So it's good for political points. After all, who wants to be accused of "supporting" sex offenders by daring to oppose this ridiculous law?

With all the problems Fitchburg has, is this really the way we should be spending our time?

[Also worth a read is Frankie Thomas' recent blog on Huffpo, Pedophiles: America's Security Blanket]

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