We now have added "Informational Posts" which are tidbits of information that may come in handy at some point.

When Evidence Is Ignored: Residential Restrictions For Sex Offenders

December 2007

The use of evidence-based practices in corrections and public policy is now considered the gold standard for policy and program development. Numerous examples (as discussed throughout this edition of Corrections Today) are available to show the importance and benefits of such an approach. In the practice of both institutional and community corrections, scientific evidence is important in formulating foundations for the operation of policies and programs. It identifies which are most likely to yield the desired results and where decisions can be guided to facilitate the achievement of safe, secure and humane institutions as well as enhanced community safety. Some observers criticize correctional policies and programs for contributing to high rates of recidivism, institutional violence, and the general failure of offenders to transform into productive and law-abiding citizens. It is therefore critical for correctional policies and practices to adhere to an evidence-based approach.

However, many of the ways that correctional facilities and programs operate are determined not by informed correctional administrators but instead by decision-makers outside the correctional enterprise. There are several obvious downfalls to this procedure. First, when decisions are made outside the correctional realm, these policies either may impose restrictions on corrections officials in being able to do what they know is in the best interests of offenders and society, or the policies may compel them to implement practices that differ from recognized best practices. Second, sizeable costs may not always achieve the most efficient distribution of resources. If increased resources do not accompany new public policies, corrections officials may be forced to reallocate funding away from well-informed and beneficial programs and practices. Third, when those outside the correctional industry develop policies, corrections officials can end up (inappropriately) bearing the brunt of public disparagement for ill-advised decisions.

The value of an evidence-based approach to policy development and program implementation is best realized when decisions are made by individuals who are educated in the extensive research literature and experienced in translating scientific data into correctional practices and programs. The focus of this article is on the effect of the misguided and detrimental development of a community corrections practice that ignores existing research evidence. Residential restrictions for registered sex offenders is a clear example of how criminal re-integration, and potentially public safety, are negatively impacted by the failure of policymakers to draw on research evidence in establishing crime prevention policy.

Sex Offender Registration And Residential Restrictions

The registration of sex offenders has been a prominent part of the American criminal justice landscape since 1994 when Congress enacted the Jacob Wetterling Act that required convicted sex offenders to record their addresses with local law enforcement agencies. Megan’s Law amended the Wetterling Act in 1996 by allowing the dissemination of registry information directly to the public. In 2006, the Adam Walsh Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act facilitated the creation of a national, Internet-based searchable sex offender database; increased registration and notification requirements; and enhanced penalties for crimes against children and for failure to register.

As a result of increased awareness of sex offenders living in the nation’s communities, approximately one-half of the states and hundreds of local municipalities have also enacted laws that impose restrictions on where registered sex offenders may reside. Explicitly intended to enhance the safety of children, these laws prohibit registered sex offenders from living within specified distances (usually onequarter to one-half mile) of places where children are likely to congregate. Various state laws and local ordinances identify protected zones around entities such as schools, daycare centers, public playgrounds and swimming pools, libraries, and school bus stops. On the surface, such laws are both politically and socially attractive, as they appear to be intuitively logical and well-intentioned public policies.

However, although residence restrictions appear to be rational and valid social policy, there are numerous problems with both their design and implementation. Making communities safer for children is a laudable goal, but these laws do not achieve that goal because they are fundamentally flawed for several important reasons. First, these laws are based upon the widespread beliefs that sex offenders have extremely high recidivism rates, sex-crime rates are on the rise and sex offenders often kill their victims. Second, there is an assumption that sex offenders are a homogeneous group and that all pose equal risk. Residence laws usually apply to all registered sex offenders, regardless of whether an individual is a predatory pedophile or whether his (or her) victims of choice are adults, the elderly or family members. Finally, the myth of stranger danger assumes that sex offenders frequently make contact with potential child victims in public locations and that they entice or abduct unsupervised children from such places.

Flaw No. 1. Media attention of sex crimes, especially random and lethal acts of sexual violence against children, gives the impression that sex-crime rates are higher than ever. In actuality, sexual assaults, like most crimes, have been on the decline for 15 years. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, rates of substantiated sexual abuse of children have dropped by 51 percent since 1991. These declines are consistently seen in data from child protective services, law enforcement and victim surveys. Media coverage tends to portray sexually motivated child abductions as a real threat to children, but the Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that only approximately 100 such cases occur in the United States each year. Sex offenders also are reputed to have exceedingly high recidivism rates, inciting fear of inevitable re-offending. Large sophisticated studies following nearly 30,000 sex offenders from North America and Europe have found that, on average, only about 14 percent of convicted sex offenders are rearrested for new sex crimes within four to six years after release.1

Flaw No. 2. Recidivism rates differ based on the offense type and risk factors such as offender age, pattern of sexual deviance, criminal history and victim preferences. Pedophiles who molest boys have the highest probability of re-offense (but fewer than 40 percent of sex offenders are diagnosed with pedophilia), while rapists of adults have the next highest probability of re-offending. Though often thought of as the most relentless and dangerous of offenders, sex offenders are in fact among the least likely offenders to re-offend or to murder their victims.2

Flaw No. 3. Laws restricting where sex offenders may live have been inspired by crimes committed by perpetrators who were strangers to their victims. However, a wellestablished body of research has clearly demonstrated that such cases are the rare exception, not the typical way children come to be sexually victimized. Children are much more likely to be molested by trusted caretakers and relatives. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 34 percent of sexually abused minors were assaulted by family members and 59 percent by acquaintances.3 In addition, about 49 percent of victims under the age of six are abused by people related to them, and it is estimated that less than 7 percent of sex crimes against juveniles are committed by strangers. Similarly, about three-fourths of sex crimes against adults are perpetrated by known assailants, BJS reports. ..more.. by Richard Tewksbury is a professor of justice administration at the University of Louisville Department of Justice Administration. Jill Levenson is an assistant professor of human services at Lynn University in Florida.

Tewksbury, R. & Levenson, J.S. (2007). When Evidence is Ignored: Residential Restrictions for Sex Offenders. Corrections Today, December 2007.

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