Last week, after writing about this strange article that attempted to depict the flight of nearly 250 Fulton County (GA/Atlanta) sex offenders as “no big deal” because the offenders mostly targeted family members or their girlfriends’ kids (!), I was barraged with abusive and threatening e-mails apparently originating from a pro-sex offenders website.

But I also received some thoughtful commentary from other people who disagreed with my view that registries protect the public and are one factor in the decline in the sex offense crime rate.  I’ve been meaning to write more about the registry issue because I think the media reflexively reports on it in bad faith.  I also think academicians with anti-registration biases are crafting advocacy research and making claims that do not stand up to scrutiny.

What follows is my response to “Nunya,” one of the thoughtful, if angry, responders.  This won’t be my last word on the subject.  I hope it will spur a real conversation about the efficacy of these laws, the myths that have risen up around them, and what we should and should not do to improve the sex offender registration system.  “Nunya” and I disagree about many things, but I think we agree that recidivism rates and the vexed issue of statutory rape committed by young men (or, as I see it, alleged recidivism rates and allegedly statutory crimes) deserve more attention.

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Nunya: There are so many things in your article that are erroneous it’s difficult to know exactly where to start, but I will begin at the beginning with your title: “Georgia’s Sex Offender Registry Works”. Since these laws have been in place for a number of years now, with Georgia having passed one of the toughest set of laws in the country over three years ago, I’m sure you can point to plenty of documented evidence as to how these laws have actually reduced sexual crimes in this country, right? There must be plenty of studies that show a dramatic decrease in sex crimes all over the nation as a result of the laws you claim are so effective.

No, I can’t “point to plenty of documented evidence.”  In order to document evidence, we would need to have a criminal justice system that functions adequately and predictably in response to sex offenses, and we don’t have one.  So nearly all of the types of statistics that people would like to see are currently impossible to produce, at least accurately.

While there are both more and less reliable figures on victimization rates, no statistical analysis indicates that anywhere near half of all sex crimes result in an investigation, let alone prosecution, of an offender.  The conviction rate is far lower for sex offenders who target children.  Statistics on recidivism that make claims about a “3%” or “4.5%’ rate are thus simply untrue.

What they are actually measuring is the performance of our criminal justice system, not recidivism.

Some recidivism studies are more obviously unreliable than others.  Things activist-academicians do to minimize recidivism rates include:

  • Counting only imprisonments, not convictions.  As I’ve illustrated in my blog, an unknown number of convicted sex offenders are not being sent into the state prison system after they have been found guilty of crimes as serious as child rape.  Some research on recidivism focuses only on offenders who have entered the prison system.
  • Counting only subsequent convictions, rather than investigating the cause of parole or registration violations that send an offender back to prison.  When a first-time sex offender is caught in the act of committing or trying to commit another sex offense, often the most-cost-effective way of removing him from the streets is to simply revoke parole or charge him with a registry violation.  How many of the men returned to prison for these alleged “non-sex” crimes were actually caught trying to commit another sex crime but were not prosecuted for that offense?  Nobody knows.  But in our perennially underfunded courts, there is tremendous pressure to save money by simply revoking someone’s parole or convicting them of merely “failure to report” when they are caught committing another sex crime.
  • Studying only a small time frame after release.  When you track offenders only for the time when they are under the highest post-incarceration scrutiny, often completing half-way house and therapeutic interventions, of course you’re going to find lower recidivism rates.  Virtually all the studies cited by pro-offender activists track offenders for very short periods of time after release.
  • Failing to account for strategic conviction practices from the recent past, when they apply.  Even when researchers look at re-offense rates over longer periods of time, they do not consider prior practices such as charging sex offenders only with property crime in order to guarantee a conviction.  Yet DNA databases are revealing vast numbers of sex offenders with only drug or burglary convictions who have been matched to un-prosecuted sexual assaults on the database.
  • Leaving out juvenile sex offenses.
  • Counting only convictions and ignoring consolidated charges.  This is the way most recidivism gets “disappeared” in the first place.  When sex offenders are caught, they are rarely prosecuted for more than one crime, even when they are suspects in multiple crimes, even when they confess to multiple, or prolific, sex crime sprees.  Even stranger, serial rapists who leave behind DNA routinely aren’t prosecuted for all their known crimes.  Each sex crime investigation that gets shelved when an offender is sent away for another crime artificially lowers recidivism rates.  With child victims, of course, recidivism against single victims is routinely “disappeared” when prosecutors can prove any single instance of abuse.  Here is merely one recent example of the practice, from Court Watch Florida (Orlando):

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State v. Jeffrey Allan Eymann  2009-CF-004477-O
Charged with 1,200 counts of Lewd/Lascivious Molestation of a Child < 12 years old
Victim was the daughter of his ex-girlfriend.  Eymann pled on 10/16 to 1 count of Lewd/Lascivious Conduct. All other counts were dropped. Sentenced to 7 years in prison + 5 years sex offender probation; no contact with victim, but may have contact with victim’s mother.

CourtWatchFlorida’s blog does a great job of illustrating the many ways criminal records get minimized as they are processed through the system.  Here is a study that looks at variability in recidivism studies.  I can’t link to the entire report, but if you have a library card, you may be able to log into the database with a librarian’s help.

Nunya: The fact is Tina, sex crimes have not only increased over the years since these laws were passed but now, as a result of politicians and the media seizing on the public’s fear, these so called “child protection laws” are now responsible for children themselves, some as young as 13, being victimized for life as a “sex offender”. What might have initially been a good idea, a public listing of violent and potentially dangerous people that the public needed to be aware of, has turned into a watered-down joke, full of all sorts of “dangerous” offenses such as public urination, mooning, and consensual sex among teens, which, I might add, I’m sure all of us, including the above mentioned article’s author, have probably engaged in at some point in their lives. So now we are ALL sex offenders. Be sure to pick up your membership card at the door.

Well, no.  According to the Uniformed Crime Report (UCR), which measures reported crimes, forcible rape rates have dropped in every year but one since 1992.  So what’s changed?  Sentencing reforms, post-incarceration registration, and and the gradual implementation of DNA databasing.  Sexual assault rates have also fallen by more than 60%.  People are not being placed on the sex offender lists for pranks like mooning, or for public urination.  Violent sex offenders often engage in flashing and “peeping Tom” behaviors, which is why these crimes are treated, as the should be, like sex crimes, even if they seem dismissible to many.

The idea that public concerns about sex crime are groundless “fears” manufactured by the media and forced onto a gullible public, is an opinion, not an argument.  Women must routinely and reasonably contemplate the safety of the choices they make: they are not hysterical for doing so.  I will address statutory and allegedly statutory crimes in more detail below, but let me observe here that in a state such as Georgia, where there are approximately a million teenagers, half of whom will have had sex while still a teenager, there is no evidence that “consensual sex among teens” is causing people to end up on the sex crimes registry.

Rather, in a state where there have been nearly 29,000 forcible rapes reported to authorities since the registry went into effect (crimes after 1995), and many times that number when you count other sex crimes, it hardly seems outrageous that some of the 17,893 people on the Georgia registry are teens who raped or otherwise sexually assaulted other teens or younger children.

As to recidivism, many many studies, by independent groups not associated with criminal justice, repeatedly verify that sex offenders, as a category, have the lowest recidivism rate of any crime. Period. You should bother to look at them before you start expounding about an issue that you obviously have very little knowledge about.

See above.

One [thing] that I do agree with you on [is] that journalists, ALL journalists, including those who write such biased reporting as yours, should “hold themselves to a higher standard” as you say. The truth is that all reporting is biased in some way, since it is written by people who are, as a result of being human, biased in their opinions. The best a person can do is to look at the facts and try to reach an objective conclusion based on those facts. Someone has already posted some links to resources where some of those facts can be verified. I suggest you educate yourself before you pose as an authority on this, or at the very least provide references for your information so that the reader can verify what you say.

“Of course most victims know their offenders.” I got confused on this one Tina. Since it is true statistically that most, and by that I mean MOST people, children and adults, who are sexually abused are done so by people they know (usually a family member or friend of the family), how does monitoring the others, in this case strangers which would include previously convicted sex offenders, help to reduce incidents of abuse? Let me put it this way: monitoring people who have already committed a sexual crime in the hopes that it will prevent a future offense is like locking the barn door AFTER the horse has already gotten out of the barn. To use the reasoning that we need to know the whereabouts of the 250 people whose whereabouts are unknown to the authorities in order to feel safe from sexual offense makes no sense at all. Again, it’s not the stranger in town you need to watch, it’s the uncle, the dad, the brother, etc. If politicians and others, such as yourself, are as concerned about the safety of children as you say you are, then why not do something to protect them from the group that represents the greatest threat to them, namely their own family and friends of the family? Maybe we could remove all children from their homes until they are 18 and allow periodic supervised visits by their parents? I’m being facetious here but hopefully you get my point. WE ARE WATCHING THE WRONG PEOPLE!

What is so hard to understand about this?

I have to admit that I am terrifically, monumentally confused by the argument that people who target children they know are less of a danger (For what?  For recidivism?) than people who “snatch random children off the streets.”  Of course, there are very few of the latter compared to the former, but so what?  Registries are not designed to modulate some abstract economy of fear, or label people before they get convicted of a crime: they are designed to keep tabs on individual people who have a proven propensity for sexually abusing children or adults.

Nevertheless, this weird argument keeps popping up in activist propaganda (where it was obviously manufactured), and, predictably, journalists have now begun parroting it (without entirely understanding it, I think) in news stories.

But it makes no sense.

Adults who prey on children they know — be they coaches, step-dads, uncles, grandfathers, priests — pose a risk to any child they get to know in the future.  They also continue to be a danger to the children they victimized or knew or were simply related-to prior to their first conviction.  And because they’re far more likely to be released from prison (or not sent in the first place) than sex criminals who abduct random children, there’s an argument to be made that registration is even more crucial for offenders whose modus operandi involves targeting children in their lives and/or “grooming” children through their legitimate relationships with them.

Compulsive child molesters are often compulsive groomers: do we say that the youth minister should not be on the registry because he gets to know his victims first?

Adults who prey on children in their own families, or extended families, also pose a special danger if their relatives protected them in the past, or if the cycle of sexual abuse is part of the family dynamic: they may be returning to households where there are still vulnerable children, not to mention returning to families that will continue to protect them, excuse them, or even participate in their crimes.  Parents don’t always lose custody when they commit a sex crime against their own children, or another minor relative, and protecting these especially vulnerable children was actually one of the motivations behind the creation of sex offender registration laws.

Many child molesters access their victims through consensual adult relationships with single moms.  So, what happens when one of them strolls out of prison, meets a new woman, and moves in with her and her children?  Should we “not worry” because he’s not out on the streets, when, instead, he’s alone in the apartment, babysitting the six-year old while her mom goes to work?

I think this argument (more of a campaign, it is so coordinated) is a very clear example of activists controlling the media discourse: it’s such a strange claim to make, but, suddenly, it’s being voiced in many quarters.  Some might say that what the activists mean is that we should be more worried about sex offenders who haven’t been caught yet, as opposed to the sex offenders who have been caught.  But that makes no sense, either, as a criticism of registries.  It would be useful to be able to place all child molesters, including those who haven’t been caught yet, on a list.  But the fact that we can’t monitor child molesters who have not yet been caught and convicted is no argument against monitoring those who have, regardless of how they choose their victims.

Now, clearly there are some people who are dangerous and represent a potential threat to public safety, and they should be prevented from hurting anyone else. But if that’s the case then why are these people not in prison in the first place? Why are they being released? I suggest that they reason the really dangerous people are out on the street is because due to just about anything even remotely sexual in nature being treated as a sex crime, there simply isn’t room enough to keep the really bad guys locked up.

I don’t agree: I think there are simply a lot of sexual offenders, not that there are no prison spaces because we’re imprisoning minor sex offenders.  And even though the numbers in prison look large, the victim pool is far larger, especially when you start adding in sexual crimes against children and adolescents.  Nobody is “keeping rapists out of prison” because they’re filling prisons with lesser sexual offenders: heck, they’re simply not sending many rapists and child molesters to prison because the system is simply criminally lenient across the board, as I’ve illustrated countless times on this blog (search “The Guilty Project” for a partial rogues gallery).  Who are these people sitting in prison for lesser sexual crimes?

I do agree that a lot of the men out on the streets after sex crime convictions should be locked up forever, instead.  The real solution to that problem, however, is vastly expanding the number of people with life sentences.  And precisely the same activist groups that are trying to get sex offenders off registries are simultaneously trying to get even the most violent recidivists out from behind bars.  It’s all one very well-funded, well-placed, powerful movement.

I further suggest that you have a look and see exactly what will get you a place on the sex offender registry these days for yourself. The Georgia Sex Offender Review Board, the government body who is responsible for classifying the risk level of offenders on the registry, has gone on record as saying that only 4% of those listed pose any real significant threat to society. That means for every 4 people listed there are 96 who should not be there at all.

Here is another interpretation: the Georgia Sex Offender Review Board is not doing its job.  You complained, above, about dangerous, recidivist sex offenders being free on the streets when they should be locked up?  Well, the folks responsible for bringing that free-range-serial-rapist-show to a theater near you are the same ones being trusted to classify the offenders they’re cutting loose: do you think the parole board wants to admit that they’re letting a bunch of predators out early every other Thursday?  It took me about two clicks to find someone on the registry who should be classified a sexual predator but is not.  And then I found a lot more of them.

Here is the rule (you can read the entire code section here):

The board shall determine the likelihood that a sexual offender will engage in another crime against a victim who is a minor or a dangerous sexual offense. The board shall make such determination for any sexual offender convicted on or after July 1, 2006, of a criminal act against a minor or a dangerous sexual offense and for any sexual offender incarcerated on July 1, 2006, but convicted prior to July 1, 2006, of a criminal act against a minor.

Here is somebody who should be classified a predator.  And, oh yeah, he’s absconded:

Miguel Ortiz:

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Ortiz was convicted in DeKalb County of aggravated child molestation in 1994.  He was also convicted in DeKalb County of aggravated child molestation in 1989.  He got three years . . . for aggravated child molestation in 1989.  Then he got out of prison, early of course.  Then he got eight years for aggravated child molestation in 1994.  Despite a prior conviction.  Then he got out of prison, early again, of course.  Now he’s on the run.  The GBI and the Atlanta Journal Constitution want you to know there’s nothing to worry about because Ortiz probably just victimized children he knew.

All recidivists should be classified as predators, including all the recidivists who aren’t recidivists on paper because they were permitted to plead down to one offense but were charged with two.  Or fifteen.  Or 1,200.  All people convicted of forcible rape should be classified as predators.  Many other states have saner classification practices.

Nunya: How can authorities monitor the 4 who need to be monitored when they have 96 others they have to, according to the law, treat exactly the same?The truth is they can’t, which is why you hear about cases such as the guy in California recently who kept a woman captive for a number of years and abused her repeatedly, and all under the nose of his parole officer who was too busy keeping an eye on the rest of his case load to catch it. Being the victim’s advocate that you are, how would you explain to that woman how the sex offender laws are working?

This is another activist-manufactured argument that’s been bleeding out all over the obeisant fourth estate.  That guy in California, Phillip Garrido (see my previous posts on him here and here), got away with kidnapping Jaycee Lee Duggard because the federal parole board let him loose decades before he was supposed to be released from a federal sentence that was supposed to disqualify him for parole.  So, a parole board broke the law of the United States of America, and yet, somehow, we’ve heard not one whisper about anyone being held responsible for it.

And then some parole officers didn’t do their job, and it’s not because they were “stretched too thin”: they managed to pay regular visits to Garrido’s house but apparently were snowed by him or didn’t bother to read his record.  Or, perhaps, believe it: the parole industry is riddled with people whose hearts bleed for child rapists; who believe there’s such a thing as rehabilitation for a sick monster like Garrido who should have never, ever seen the light of day again after what he had done to his previous victim.

Don’t blame me: blame the people who labor tirelessly to ensure that the Phillip Garridos of this world get multiple second changes to rape and kill.  Blame the anti-incarceration activists who run the academic departments and the law schools and the treatment centers and the state parole boards and activist groups.  Blame their fake statistics on recidivism and their self-righteous commitment to an ideology of rehabilitation for every prisoner, and an ideology of emptying the prisons — that’s what cut Garrido loose to chew the bones of a few more women.

It takes some real nerve for the anti-incarceration industry to point to a horrible injustice like the early release of Phillip Garrido and blame the people who are trying to prevent such injustices from happening by using piddling band-aids like parole and registration lists — because other options are closed to us — thanks to the power of the anti-incarceration industry.  But they get away with it.  They get away with getting most evidence excluded from courtrooms, and most sentences reduced, and most offenders offered an array of “alternatives to incarceration,” and then the media swallows it whole when they then point at sex offender registries and squeal: that’s what got that little girl raped!

Here’s what I would say to Jaycee Duggard: I’d tell her that I will be the first person to agitate for severe consequences for the people who got her raped by letting her rapist out of prison early, and so should you, and if you did it with me, then there would be two of us.  And do you know who we would be up against?  The activists at the Southern Center for Human Rights, who you speak so well of below.      

Lastly, you took a swipe at the Southern Center for Human Rights and the AJC.

I like to think I took more than a swipe at them.  I think I hit the target.

I’d suggest to you that the Southern Center is responsible for acting on behalf of the rights of not only sex offenders, but anyone who is being victimized by an out of control government and legal system. They take a very unpopular stand for a group of people who can’t defend themselves and I applaud them for it. With the background you have I am sure you know that “laws” are not necessarily based on what is constitutional but on what public opinion happens to be at the time. If you were to have asked a black man in Mississippi in 1950 did he think his “constitutional” rights were being protected I am sure you would have gotten a different answer then than you would now. It was due to the efforts of civil rights “activists”, as you call them, that those rights, which were there along, were finally made to be recognized. Yes, it was very unpopular idea at the time, but it was also right to do it. It’s also right to protect the rights of ALL citizens of this country, regardless of public opinion or how popular or unpopular it is at the time. Along those lines, I suspect that at some point in the future people will look back on all this legal B.S. and wonder what in the world were they thinking? That’s the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is people never waking up at all until everyone’s rights, including yours Tina, are gone, at which point it’s too late. I suspect you’d want the Southern Center in your corner at that point.

The reference to historical racism is irrelevant and accusatory.  “You want to keep people in prison for crimes they commit, so you are a racist” doesn’t get welcomed on this website, though I’m sure you can peddle it elsewhere.  And much as they see themselves as the courageous descendants of Atticus Finch, the SCHR has never met a rapist they didn’t try to free, nor hesitated to tar crime victims and others with offensive and groundless accusations of racism in order to get their way.  Unpopular stands . . . people who can’t defense themselves . . .  says who?  They get plenty of approbation: all this carrying on about taking courageous stands against the darkness is just so much adolescent, self-serving garbage.  They get paid every time they file a frivolous lawsuit on behalf of some child rapist who wants the taxpayers to cover his rent, or other such nonsense — and that sort of thing is what really busts the justice budget, not mythical conspiracies to imprison people for peeing in public.  I have little patience for this stuff.  I’ve paid too high a price for it.  So have many, many hundreds of thousands of victims who have been denied justice, or lost their lives, over the last fifty years, thanks to such one-note activism parading as “civil rights.”

I’ll leave out the end of the letter, where I’m offered a bit of unsolicited career advice (you can read it here) because I think “Nunya” is being sincere.  And there is an important point that came up more in our off-line discussion: he argues that statutory rape laws are wrongfully condemning young men to a lifetime on the sex offender registration lists for nothing more than having consensual sex with their slightly younger girlfriends.  A lot of people believe this: it is a criticism that prosecutors need to address, for if it is true that there are any cases of 17-year olds being placed on the registry for having actually consensual sex with their 14-year old girlfriends, that is likely something that ought to be changed.

But I suspect most cases of “statutory rape” on the registration list are more complicated than that.

Georgia law on statutory rape is designed to avoid some “Romeo and Juliet”  scenarios: so are the rules on who must register.  The age of consent is 16.  But if a potential defendant is 18 or younger, and he or she has consensual sex with someone 14, 15, or 16, the charge is a misdemeanor, no registration required.  Here are other exclusions (see a description of the law here):

WHO IS NOT REQUIRED TO REGISTER?

  • If a person convicted of a sexual offense in Georgia was released from prison, placed on probation or supervised released before July 1, 1996, he/she is not required to register as a sexual offender (with some exceptions for victimizing minors)
  • A person who was convicted of a misdemeanor sexual offense after June 30, 2001.
  • Juveniles prosecuted in juvenile court are not subject to the registry.

A lot of sex offenders claim that their “only crime” was consensual sex with someone not much younger than themselves.  And a lot of journalists take such claims at face value.  But an 18-year old is not supposed to be placed on the sex offender registry for the statutory rape of his 14-year old girlfriend; nobody prosecuted in juvenile court is supposed to be placed on the registry at all.

What is happening in the cases where it appears these rules have not been followed?  Were the offenders tried as adults because of the seriousness of their crimes?  Is the statutory charge a plea from a more serious offense?  Which statutory charges are pleas, regardless of the age of the offender?

Many statutory rape charges are for serious crimes, including crimes involving under-age prostitutes.  There needs to be some clarity on this issue, for the public, and perhaps in the code itself.

Because registration is too important for the practice to founder or lose public confidence.  Every time a sex offender (and in Georgia, not a misdemeanor sexual offender) knows that he or she is being monitored by the government, the law is working.

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