Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sex offender lists make reoffending more likely.

The problems with sex offender lists continues to grow. The Las Vegas Sun recently ran an article about the plight of one man, Harry Berlin, 71.

Mr. Berlin moved into an apartment and was soon being harassed by various individuals. Apparently the previous occupant of the apartment was listed on the sex offenders list and there are people who get their jollies harassing (or worse) individuals they find on the list.

But when the previous occupant of the apartment left the premises he didn’t notify the state that he moved. Because the publication of these lists invites harassment more and more ex-offenders are moving without notifying the police of their new address. It is the only way they can avoid the harassment.

However, the web sites list the most recent known address of these offenders. But with more and more ex-offenders avoiding the list it means that the people living at the publicized addresses have never committed any offense. The harassers either don’t know that or don’t care. They are getting their jollies and innocent people are suffering.

Mr. Berlin found his address listed on the state list and on a county list. The state blamed the county for the problem and the county blamed the state. Each told Berlin that it wasn’t their problem and that the other agency had to resolve the matter. So far neither has.

Berlin says he now is afraid to leave his home but terrified to stay home.

The offenders registries themselves often state that they have no idea if the person living at the address listed is actually an offender or not. They know these lists are not accurate and no one knows how inaccurate such lists are. But if the states know their lists are inaccurate then what purpose do they serve?

This problem is a national one. The Dallas Morning News reports the registry “is highly inaccurate, filled with phony and outdated addresses.” The newspaper said they tried to track down offenders from the list and couldn’t locate 46% of them.

In fact, the registry makes it hard to track sex offenders. If offenders were registered with the police alone it would be much easier to track them. When the information is made public the offenders are often harassed by vigilante types. Listing them means they are forced from one residency to another. One police official said: “You’ve got sex offenders getting evicted every other week, moving, coming into to make changes and by the time we’ve forwarded the data to Austin, they’ve moved again.”

The Dallas paper reported on Robert Bhuiyan and Darren Jenkens who found a home that they loved very much. While renting it they were looking into purchasing. Doing on-line research they were horrified to discover that their address was listed on the sex offenders registry. They quickly called police, hoping to resolve the matter, only to be told “the state registry never gets updated and that it’s no one person’s job to investigate it.”

Mr. Bhuiyan is worried because the sex offender at his address had a Hispanic surname. Mr. Bhuiyan has dark hair and and is part Bengali and thus vaguely fits the description of the offender. The paper reports he “fears vigilantes will target him as he works in his garden. He’s even stopped playing in the yard with the toddler next door” for fear of being targeted. He says: “It’s scary -- the more the public is aware, the more this information is disseminated, the more of a target I am.” Yet Mr. Bhuiyan broke no law yet the sex offenders list makes him a target merely because he lives in the former home of an offender.

California has lost track of 44% of the sex offenders on its list, Wisconsin says they lost track of 29% of their list and Minnesota says that in excess of 20% from their list are missing. Many states simply say they have never verified the lists and literally have no idea how accurate their registries may be.

Many of the states are passing zoning restrictions on where individuals on the lists may or may not live. As more and more areas become legally off-limits the number of offenders registering is dropping. Remember that many of these individuals are non-violent and were arrested for relatively minor infractions. One case I read about concerned a man who literally is not allowed to live with his wife and children because he is zoned out of the area. His offense was that as a teenager he had sex with his girlfriend who was a few weeks under the age of consent. The “victim” is now his wife and has been for years.

In Maine a young man, William Elliot, 24, was on the sex offenders list. His crime was that as a teenager he had sex with his girlfriends two weeks before the law allowed. She didn’t want him prosecuted by any means. But Elliot’s name and address was published for the world to see and he was listed as a “sex offender”. Stephen Marshall saw that listing and went to Elliot’s home. When the young man came to the door Marshall shot him to death. His accomplice was the state of Maine who provided him, free of charge, with all the information he needed in order to commit the murder. We can only assume that Marshall thought, from the description on the net, that Elliot had attacked children. Marshall also killed a second person from the list and was carrying a list of names from the registry when police caught up with him. Marshall committed suicide when the police arrived. Mr. Elliott was not someone who was a “sex offender” in the way most people think of when they hear the term. Yet he died because he was added to this list.

California started keeping a registry of sex offenders in 1944 but when the database went public individuals were being listed as “sex offenders” for actions which are not considered sex offenses today. One man was put on the police list in 1944 for touching the knee of another man in a parked car. Years later the man, now married, was told he was to be put on the public data base as a sex offender. Other notorious incidents include a high school student who may have to register for streaking a school event. One man who was in jail for robbery found himself charged with sex crimes requiring registration as a sex offender because he masturbated in his own cell. In Oregon two young boys were facing registration as sex offenders for smacking the bottoms of other students. In Utah two young children faced registration for having voluntary sex with each other -- it was claimed they were “molesting” each other".

In Georgia Janet Allison had a sexually active teenaged daughter. The girl got pregnant and the father of the child moved in with the family. Charges were filed against the mother because she didn’t stop her daughter from having sex. She was charged with being a party to statutory rape. Yet none of the boys who had sex with her daughter were ever charged. Allison was convicted and was required to register as sex offender.

Human Rights Watch investigated sex registries in the United States and found that individuals could be listed as sex offenders for prostitution or urinating where someone else could see them. They say the severity of the offense is not taken into account nor is the change in behavior of the individual. Approximately three quarters of sex offenders never offend again, contrary to widespread mythology. Yet someone who has acted responsibly for decades can still be listed. They note that being listed on the registry can be devestating for individuals.
Their privacy is shattered. Many cannot get or keep jobs or find affordable housing. Registrants’ children have been harassed at school; registrants’ spouses have also been forced to leave their jobs. Former offenders included on online registries have been hounded from their homes, had rocks thrown through windows, and feces left on their doorsteps. They have been beaten, burned, stabbed, and had their homes set on fire. At least four registrants have been targeted and killed by strangers who found their names and addresses through online registries. Other registrants have been driven to suicide.
In Iowa one police official said that they used to be able to trade 95 percent of offenders. But as offenders are publicly listed and restricted to specific areas more and more of them are dropping their registrations. Now he says they can find only 70- to 75% of these people. The rest have disappeared from the listing.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma police say the same thing happened. Police say residential restrictions passed by pandering politicians means that most the city is off-limits to anyone listed on the registry. The Tulsa World reports: “Unable to find acceptable places to live, some of them eventually resort to living in areas that are prohibited by law and stop registering their residences with law enforcement agencies, police say.” Almost one-third of offenders disappeared from police records when the law kicked in. But police say they are still in the city but now the police can’t find them.

These laws are resulting in two things happening simultaneously. First, sex offenders were becoming harder to track, not easier, because the registries make the information public and the offenders were susceptible to harassment and vigilante action. The only way to avoid it was to move and no re-register at the new address. A police-only list wouldn’t have that effect. As offenders are failing to register there are innocent people moving into the last known address of offenders. Their addresses are appearing on the public lists. It is only a matter of time before one of these people is attacked or killed by vigilantes. That might wake up some people to the problem but politicians are likely to ignore it -- they rarely worry when others pay the cost for their bad decisions.

We know that sex offenders who were convicted of one crime are being attacked and murdered by individuals who mistakingly assumed they were guilty of something else. And as the politicians pander to this sort of conservative, sex hysteria the number of “offenses” that can get one registered as a sex offender is growing substantially.

Individuals who work with sex offenders to deal with their problems say the result of these laws is actually to encourage more offending. Psychologist Richard Hamill helps treat sex offenders and he says:
The risk of re-offense is much lower if (an offender) is employed, has safe housing, is in treatment and has a support system like a 12-step program or the support of families and friends.... What has happened is that ... some folks are now losing their jobs or being ostracized from their communities.
Some advocates of sex registries argue that they are necessary because offenders reoffend. Some do, many don’t. Teenage offenders are among the least likely to reoffend. Over 90% of juvenile offenders never offend again. Yet they can be listed on such registries for life. At least half the states will list juveniles on the public registry. So sex offender lists can publish the name and address of children for public consumption.

The New York Times mentions the case of one young boy who engaged in some sex play with his sister. He touched her vagina on top of her underware and she performed oral sex on him. The mother found out and told the police and the boy was placed in a sex-offender program for juveniles were “he was considered a role model in his program.” He was also put on the sex offenders registry for anyone to read.

A few years later, without him reoffending in any way, he was in high school and apparently happy and well-adjusted. He wrote a love note to a girl he was interested in and the girl’s mother found his name on the sex offender’s list. Soon the entire school was aware and the boy’s life became a living hell. As a result he was twice hospitalized for emotional problems. On one occasion he intentionally walked into on-coming traffic telling police afterwards that he simply wanted to die. Another time he was hospitalized after confessing a desire to commit suicide as well as wanting to kill some of the kids who were taunting him.

One teenage girl had touched a boy’s penis when she was a child. For that she was listed as a sex offender. She has been harassed at her school because of it and says that boys have called her anonymously demanding sex from her on the assumption that she must be willing to do such things because of the list. In this case a young girl who did something years earlier was being sexually harassed and the state was helping the harassers find her for that purpose.

As such incidents become more well known another consequence may well be that parents will simply refuse to seek counseling for children caught up in such incidents. Counselors are required to report all such incidents if they become aware of them. While a young child, who molests another child, may need counseling the result could be a life long listing that will haunt them. The counseling may be good for the child but the downside is the listing which can be deadly in some cases or severely traumatic in others. Some parents have already expressed regret that they sought counseling for their children. If parents shun counseling due to the consequences of their children being listed on the registry then the outcome may be an increased chance of reoffending -- and since some studies show that as many as 98% of juvenile offenders don’t reoffend, if they get counseling, the net result could be an increase in sex crimes as those children become adults.

The Times reporter says:
In dozens of interviews, therapists, lawyers, teenagers and their parents told me similar stories of juveniles who, after being discovered on a sex-offender registry, have been ostracized by their peers and neighbors, kicked out of extracurricular activities or physically threatened by classmates. Experts worry that these experiences stigmatize adolescents and undermine the goals of rehabilitation. “The whole world knows you did this bad thing,” notes Elizabeth Letourneau, an associate psychology professor at the Medical University of South Carolina and an expert on juveniles with sex offenses. “You could go to treatment for five years; you could be as straight as an arrow; but the message continues to be: You are a bad person. How does that affect your self-image? How does that affect your ability to improve your behaviors?”
Some of these juvenile “sex offenders” are, “are what therapists call ‘naïve experimenters’ — overly impulsive or immature adolescents who are unable to approach girls or boys their own age; instead, they engage in inappropriate sexual acts with younger children.” Others are “adjudicated for what some therapists would say is ‘playing doctor’ or normative ‘sexual experimentation.’ These are broadly considered to include sexual acts that are spontaneous, intermittent and “consensual” (legally, children under 16 usually cannot consent to sex) between youths within a couple of years age.”

Laws are sledgehammers and as the Times notes a sex offender might be someone who, as an adult, repeatedly raped children. But the list can also include individuals who as juveniles merely touched another juvenile in a sexual way. Others may include people who were just spotted taking a piss in public.

The negative results of these laws is far greater than any good. If you think they protect children they don’t. Many offenders are no longer on the lists and many of the addresses on the lists don’t contain offenders. As fewer offenders register more non-offenders are being targeted for harassment by individuals who assume they are the offender. The lists and other measures drive more and more offenders underground where the police are finding it difficult to keep track of them. As the hysterics continue more and more offenses are added to the registry which compounds the problem. The clutter of innocuous offenses helps hide the severe offenders from public scrutiny.

The sex offenders registry is a perfect example of how well-intentioned, but badly-conceived legislation can take a bad situation and make it much worse.

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