By George Griffin
All too often, public policy and community actions are established based on gut reactions and knee-jerk responses rather than sound evidence and best practices. The alarmist Sept. 16 front page story in the News-Journal regarding sex offenders (“445 registered sex offenders live near local elementary schools”) is the type of journalism that sparks needless fear and wrong-headed actions.
As a news organization, the News-Journal cannot claim ignorance of the June double murder of two registered sex offenders. One of these was guilty of the crime of sleeping with his underage girlfriend when he was just a kid, and was now married with children. But the irrational fear of the sex offender label led to the murderer being called a hero. In light of that event, did the News-Journal find it necessary to list the names and locations of sex offenders in Volusia and Flagler County? Most disturbingly, the News-Journal implied that something must be done about this situation, yet did not produce a single example of any of the 445 registered sex offenders in the two counties doing anything to endanger the community. They are only guilty of existing in the county.
The article played into the most pervasive myths about sex offenders, such as:
Once a sex offender, always a sex offender. Not true. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, recidivism rates are as follows: “Released prisoners with the highest re-arrest rates were robbers (70.2 percent), burglars (74.0 percent), larcenists (74.6 percent), motor vehicle thieves (78.8 percent), those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4 percent), and those in prison for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2 percent). Within three years, 2.5 percent of released rapists were arrested for another rape, and 1.2 percent of those who had served time for homicide were arrested for homicide.” Other more generic sex offense research shows a recidivism rate between 5 percent and 15 percent.
Sex offenders in the neighborhood endanger children. Sex offenses against children are tragic. But the cold hard fact is that 80 to 90 percent these offenses are committed by a relative or an acquaintance who had a prior relationship and access to the child–not a stranger down the block.
Residency restrictions make our neighborhood safer. Empirical evidence indicates that where sex offenders live is not a significant contributing factor to reoffending. A 2008 peer-reviewed study looked at the Florida residences of sex offenders and their proximity to schools and daycare centers. The analysts studied sex offenders living 1000, 1500, and 2500 feet away, and found no correlation to sex crimes or re-offenses. The findings were similar to the results of a 2004 study by the Colorado Department of Public Safety, a study of the Jacksonville 2500 feet residency restriction, and the Iowa Department of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning. In fact, in Minnesota, an analysis of 224 repeat sex offenders led the researchers to conclude that residential restriction laws would not have prevented even one re-offense.
“Sex offenders rarely encountered their victims in public locations where children congregate, and therefore policies emphasizing residential proximity to schools, parks, and other ‘child-friendly’ locations ignore the empirical reality of sexual abuse patterns,” a 2011 study concluded.
Many registered sex offenders in our community are guilty of relatively minor crimes that do not endanger children – “Romeo and Juliet” relationships, opening an email or clicking on a website with forbidden pictures, or even being seen urinating at night in public. Our “hair on fire” approach to sex offenders in general lead to travesties like the encampments here in Central Florida woods or the 70+ sex offenders who were forced to live under a bridge in Miami.
If our true goal is to eliminate the repeat of sex offenses, we need to honestly look at the evidence. Sex offenders need stability in order to reenter society – a job, a place to live, perhaps counseling and monitoring. But residency restrictions and harassment by neighborhoods and newspapers undermines the goal. The Iowa prosecuting attorneys found that residency restriction not only did no good, they actually did harm. They resulted in a reduction in confessions and fewer plea agreements, which results in fewer convictions. Therefore, fewer sex offenders are held accountable and do not receive the treatment they need. As a result more victims are endangered. Even worse, the child victim must now endure the trauma of the trial system, reliving and retelling his experiences.
To those who disagree with the above arguments, a challenge: find one reputable study that indicates that residency restrictions on registered offenders have done any good. The News Journal owes it to their readers – all of their readers, to be more responsible in their reporting, not resorting to scare tactics that lead to irrational laws and actions.
George Griffin is president of the Volusia/Flagler Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Reach him by email here.