The public expects and deserves evidence-based practices when it comes to public safety. This is true for any aspect of public policy but perhaps none so much as sex offender policy. With sex offenders, there is a sense of moral outrage at the depravity of their crimes, and rightly so. Virtually any sex crime makes the news headlines because the public has a very high interest in this crime. Too often politicians not only capitalize on the fear that is caused by sex offenders, but they inadvertently create more of it.
The manner in which this happens can be seen in sex offender registries and residence restrictions. Using the law to require that someone has to register to be on a registery, politicians are effectively saying that the person who previously offended is someone you need to be afraid of for future re-offending, even though the research says the likelihood is the lowest of the crime categories. Or by requiring through law that sex offenders cannot live in certain places, politicians are saying that if the converse were true, children would not be safe, even though place of residence has virtually nothing to do with who will be victimized.
Why Do Politicians Use Fear?
Sometimes they may do it on purpose to boost their popularity in being proactive on important issues. But I think the main reason is that politicians are regular people who got elected but who are not experts in this field and they just don't know what they don't know. Crime policy and the science of correcting criminal behavior is very complicated. We tend to think that what would deter us (the non-criminal population) from committing a crime is the same thing that would deter them (the criminal population) from committing a crime. This is incorrect thinking.
Moreover, we tend to confuse 'punishment' with 'crime prevention.' They two may be the same, but are not necessarily the same. We tend to think that sticking it to criminals with harsh punishments will teach them not to re-offend. Other times we think that the harsh punishments are what is deserved, which is a fair argument, but let's not confuse it with what works. In the criminological research it is undisputed that the 'certainty' of punishment is far more important than the 'severity' of punishment. Think about it like this: it doesn't matter how severe a punishment is because if the criminal doesn't think that he or she is going to get caught, the punishment doesn't matter.
Sex Offender Residence Restrictions
Too many of the the things that politicians encourage have either 'unknown' because we don't measure them for effectiveness or 'no effect' on sex offender recidivism. I have written in the past about how, contrary to common perception, sex offenders have a low rate of recidivism; how most sex offenders are unknown to the public; how sex offender registries are not really keeping your children safe; how sex offender registries don't reduce recidivism; and how parents are the best protection against sex offenders, not laws that punish and hopefully deter.
Still, there is another area of sex offender crime prevention that is lagging in evidence-based approach: sex offender residence restrictions, which are also known as child safety zones or buffer laws. For example, Richard Tewksbury of the University of Louisville wrote:
The logic of such restrictions is built on public safety--if sex offenders do not reside within sight or easy walking distance of places children gather, then those children will be spared sexual victimization. The logic falls apart, however, for sex offenders who do not target children, sex offenders who (as most do) target victims they know and with whom they interact, and for those who victimize in ways other than luring nearby children into their homes.
Tewksbury is not making this up; his statement is based on a real world analysis of the effect of sex offender residence restrictions, one of which was done by Beth M. Huebner of the University of Missouri--St. Louis and her colleagues who found that prohibitions on sex offenders residing within 1,000 feet of a school or daycare has little to no effect on recidivism. This was not an isolated finding. Other research found that "residential proximity to schools and daycares explains virtually none of the variation in sexual recidivism."
I am a politician saying that when we impose these measures, I and my colleagues across America are failing at keeping people safe on this issue. Doing something doesn't necessarily mean we are doing something effective.
Why Then Do Politicians Do This?
First, we got to where we are because fear of the sex offender harming again, anger that the sex offender offended in the first place, and punishing the sex offender is the driving force behind the thinking about what to do. All of this is normal expected human reaction. However, it is not a strategy for public safety.
The critical element that has been left out is the use of the research. It is far more newsworthy to hear that a politician "is going to increase penalties for sex offending" than a politician who is going to "factor in that the limitation of residence restrictions when the distances to schools and daycares were entered along with risk factors into a logistic regression model, neither proximity measure was a significant predictor of recidivism." Let's be real -- Who are most voters going to vote for? Or put another way, who do politicians think voters are going to vote for?
Moreover, think about it like this. Once residency restriction laws or sex offender registries are put into place, who is going to support repeal of these laws with the ever present thought that if someone gets harmed after the law has been repealed, blame is going to fall on said politician. The problem with this thinking is that doing more of the same isn't going to keep people safe.
Finally, who doesn't want to know who the sex offender is in his or her neighborhood? Who wants a convicted sex offender living near them or their child's school? Clearly, no one. Politicians are expected to use their better judgement, but they are also expected be representatives of the people's wishes. It is a hard role to balance.
Preventing sex offender crimes is an important aspect of public safety that I believe every politician takes seriously. Unfortunately, not every politician is a criminologist and as such does not have an evidence-based frame of reference from which to approach this issue. Some even think that 'evidence-based' means if someone else does it, that is evidence we should do it, too. Evidence-based typically means that an intervention has been measured against a control group to make sure that the intervention is responsible for a statistically significant decrease in a specific crime. We are not going to get safer doing more of the same, getting tougher or using fear. We need to be very calculated in how we approach the science of criminal behavior modification.
Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts on the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. Paul worked in jail and prison before becoming a State Rep. Paul has a master's in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master's in public administration from Harvard, and a bachelor's in psychology and neuroscience from USC. Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 508-639-9511.