As a legislator, one of the biggest concerns I have is public safety. Keeping the public safe from the many dangers that are prevalent in today's society is a challenge. One area of work I have spent a great deal of time on is keeping children safe from sex abuse. And unfortunately, I have found that there are too many things that are a false sense of security. One I have a big problem with is the sex offender registry. The research shows that sex offender registries don't reduce recidivism.
The popularity of sex offender registries has largely been the outcome of the belief that when parents know who sex offenders are, they keep children safe by keeping their children away from these people. This is well intended but misguided.
First, not all of the sex offenders on the registry are child predators. Child sex offenders are a sub-group of sex offenders. Think of sex offenders like cancer. There are all different types. They attack differently. They respond to treatment and punishment differently. They should all be taken serious but there are some that are more awful than others. We tend to think of a child predator as the worst type of cancer. Some cancer comes back, some does not. Predicting which comes back is not easy.
Second, we know that up to ninety percent of sex abuse on children is done by someone close to the child and the child's family. With this in mind, it is very unlikely that it will be someone who is found on the sex offender registry.
Additionally, The Enough Abuse Campaign talks about the disappearing sex offender.
- Out of 100 sex offenders, 60 to 70 go unreported.
- Of the 30 to 40, only 24 to 28 are identified, and
- Of this 18 to 21 go to trial.
- Of those who go to trial, 12 to 15 are convicted and
- Of this, only 10 are sentenced to jail or prison.
So, in the best case scenario, we have fifteen percent of the sex offender population found guilty. That means that most sex offenders are not on the sex offender registry, pointing again to the false sense of security.
The Enough Abuse Campaign stated to me that twenty five percent of identified abusers never go to trial for a number of reasons; victims or their families decide not to press forward for reasons discussed earlier, witnesses recant or change testimony, there is no physical evidence, etc. As a result, some abusers evade justice and for the most part remain relatively unknown in their communities as sexual abusers. This is alarming.
Since many sex offenders are not on the registry - they disappear before they have to register - the idea that knowing who is on the sex offender is a good way to keep your children safe is a very poor strategy.
What Should Be Done to Keep People Safe?
It depends. Are we talking about children, women, vulnerable populations or someone else?
- Children: Parents need to educate their children on what is appropriate touching and inappropriate touching, when boundaries are crossed, when to report that boundaries have been crossed, and to let children know that they won't get in trouble for reporting violations. Parents need to realize that the person most likely to sexually abuse their child is someone they know and trust, and someone who has regular contact with their child. It is not only important for parents to educate their children, but schools need to educate their students because sometimes the abuse is happening at home. And parents and educators need to be properly trained how to identify when a child is being victimized.
- Women: Self defense courses, common sense about what is risky behavior and what is not, i.e. going out alone at night, carrying and being trained in the use of pepper spray and tasers, drinking a drink at a nightclub that has not been under constant surveillance and therefore has not been tampered with, and much more.
- Vulnerable populations: Populations such as the elders, patients and the disabled, to name a few, need to also be educated on boundaries being crossed and the need for victims to report, for cameras to record residential areas, and for staff to be properly trained how to identify when someone is being victimized.
I am not advocating that we eliminate sex offender registries. My point is that a registry is about as effective as a BB gun; you might get lucky by using this tool, but it is not a strong tool. The public needs to start to understand that sex offender registries don't keep people safe they way they would think because of the nature of how predators operate when building and then violating trust. Contrary to popular belief, most sex offenders are people who will never re-offend ever again - their crimes while awful, are often times a one time event. Pedophiles are a sub-group of sex offenders that are different; we know they have many victims before they are caught. And pedophiles are where the real threat is likely to come from - someone known and trusted by the family. The statistics are very clear about this.
Politicians and advocates use fear to make their point about the harm that sex offenders do. Fear is a blunt tool. I am not saying fear is not a useful tool, but fear is not as useful as an evidence-based practice such as talking to your child, which is what I am advocating to keep children safe.
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.