Monday, October 22, 2007

Texas' new sex offender law misplaces focus on stranger danger, could make victimization more likely

The Dallas News this weekend offered up two excellent articles by Dianne Jennings and Darlean Spangenberger on Texas new sex offender law, the difficulties prosecuting child sex abuse cases, and treatment programs aimed at reducing recidivism:
Sunday's article on sex offender treatment reports that 26,000 of Texas ~155,000 prisoners are sex offenders, but most receive no treatment while incarcerated. Eighty percent serve their entire sentences with no parole:

Though the Legislature voted to double the treatment program's budget to $4 million, most of the state's incarcerated sex offenders still will get no treatment, said Geralyn Engman, manager of the treatment program at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The program is part of a larger debate on whether sex offenders can be cured – or at least learn how to manage their impulses.

Effective sex offender treatment has been elusive, experts say.

Still, state officials involved in treatment said 5 percent to 13 percent of sex offenders are rearrested for sex crimes. The only other criminal less likely to reoffend is a convicted murderer, said Allison Taylor, executive director of the Texas Council on Sex Offender Treatment.

A recent state audit of the Texas prison program shows some encouraging results. Reincarceration rates were more than 60 percent lower for offenders who went through the program than for those who did not. Most returning to prison went back for technical violations, not new criminal charges.

Those recidivism numbers are much lower than for other types of offenders - I think most people would be surprised to learn that sex offenders are LESS likely to recidivate than other offenders, and perhaps even more surprised to learn that murderers' recidivism is even lower. It's true, though, if counterintuitive.

For these serious offenses, a typical reason given by the Board of Pardons and Parole for refusing to grant parole is "the nature of the crime." But maybe we're taking the wrong lesson from "the nature of the crime." Right now that phrase is typically invoked to describe the horror of the crime, the effect on the victim, and as an argument for maximizing punishment. Perhaps the nature of the crime might instead imply the need for certain treatment regimens before re-entering the population, or for restorative justice approaches that better respect victims' rights and real needs.

Indeed, Saturday's story focuses on the ironic truth that tougher laws may make things worse for victims, since they or their family may be less likely to report abuse if it means a 25 year minimum or a death sentence for a family member.

"We're focusing on stranger danger," she said of the crackdown, which includes 25-year minimum sentences and the death penalty for some child rapists. "That's not who's molesting the vast majority of our children."

According to federal statistics, juvenile sexual assault victims know their perpetrator a staggering 93 percent of the time. Often, it's a family member. Frequently, it's another child. Rarely is it a stranger.

Texas' push to increase punishment for sex crimes was driven by top state officials wanting to send a "no tolerance" message. Although the laws are politically popular, most such crimes are never reported; those that are prosecuted often end in a plea bargain with a relatively light sentence, and about a third of sexual offenses are committed by juveniles not covered by the enhanced penalties. ...

Parents are reluctant to take a relative or friend to trial; children may make poor witnesses; and despite depictions of the tattooed ex-con hiding in the bushes, most sex offenders look like the harmless guy next door.

"We all have a kind of image of what a monster is ... one of them is that guy lurking out there who's going to kidnap our child and sexually molest and abuse them," said Dr. David Lisak, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who works with prosecutors, judges and police.

"Unfortunately, the majority of sex crimes involve people like 'Uncle Jimmy,' " he said, "and Uncle Jimmy's not a monster. And all of a sudden we're not so sure Uncle Jimmy should be put in prison."

All of these concerns were raised when the legislation was being debated, but bill proponents wouldn't listen. In an odd twist, the sponsor of Texas' Jessica's Law, Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) places any blame on the victims and their families - not ham-handed law-writing - if her new statute causes children to be abused more frequently:
Ms. Riddle said she's confident the new law will deter and punish those who know their victims and strangers – "anybody who has such a hole in their heart, such a high degree of evil, that they would sexually assault or sexually abuse a child."

Such talk sounds good, Dr. Lisak said, but "it's actually very rare that that kind of political reaction makes for good public policy."

Crimes in which a child is snatched by a stranger are extremely unusual, despite public paranoia. Of almost 800,000 missing children in a one-year period, just 115 were victims of a stereotypical kidnapping, and half of those involved sexual assault, according to the Department of Justice.

The legislative changes are "a way for everybody to feel like they've done something that's going to be real helpful – but not have to really deal with the issue," said Dr. Liz Hodges, director of the incest recovery program at The Family Place in Dallas.

Dr. Hodges said a better way to combat child sexual assault would be more affordable counseling services and greater awareness and education to increase reporting.

UPDATE: Michael from Corrections Sentencing linked to this post and offered caveats that I 100% endorse, along with some free advice for Texas pols:
Only one little quibble, Grits. It’s true that most studies show that sex offenders have lower recidivism rates than other offenders, but here are some provisos. Their crimes are harder to detect, it depends on the type of sex offender we’re talking about (drunk one-timer v. sociopath, for example), and many of them recidivate not with new sex offenses but with non-sex crimes. There’s a lot of legislative lunacy done in the name of protecting kids from sex offenders all lumped into one big evil bag, but there are truly some heinous people out there, too, who need serious punishment because treatment doesn’t work on them, as the one offender above admits. That’s why a smart legislature would be funding researchers and treatment providers to get clear pictures of who truly are the low recidivists, who are amenable to treatment, and who can never be trusted. It would be a much wiser investment than the kind of thing the Morning News is documenting in TX and is found just as bad in most other states.

[Oh, and Grits, you guys in TX need to stop letting your legislators eat lead paint and then get quoted. They’re all sounding like this expert American historian.]
See prior, related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Those of us who have worked in the Criminal justice and/or juvenile justice arenas are quite familiar with this fact.

Although there are a large number who ignore it for the more popular political rhetoric.

In 13 years of Juvenile Justice work I knew of only one sex offender who reoffended with a second sex offense, not counting the little boy who kept getting arrested for prostitution to pay for his sex change.

Anonymous said...

I have been a probation officer for over 22 years. I've worked with gang members for 8 years, Domestic Violence cases for 2 years and the last 2 and 1/2 as a Supervision officer for a Sex Offender caseload. It amazes me that the biggest problems I have to deal with are Registration and Counseling. Seems like most don't want to do either, unless forced.
I'm sick of the bleeding hearts who FEEL SORRY for these poor mistreated souls. When are we going to say AND mean: enough is enough? NO MORE VICTIMS is what should be demanded! Don't give me any excuses, lock them up for good if they refuse to follow the rules.
As for the preceding comment, the others probably didn't get caught and you are naive to believe only one re-offended in 13 years. KG

Anonymous said...

I know this is an older post, but I think something needs to be said to the Probation Officer. First and foremost, I think you need to get another job. It seems that your present occupation is wearing you thin. Second, ofcourse registering and counseling are the two toughest things to get us to do. We are tired of having our rights violated and stepped on. Let's see your gang-bangers comply with forced registration, and forced mind control.

Anonymous said...

I dunno, the Parole Supervisor has a difficult job supervising a Sex Offender Caseload. there are MANY RSO's who are in denial of their guilt thus will Buck the system at all cost. But, there are many RSO's who on the other hand comply fully. I wish the powers to be in Austin or D.C. would offer an Incinative for the RSO who complies for a specified amount of time without re-offense of ANY crime. To have their case reviewed and pass a polygraph then be moved to a seperate, more secure location on Databases which would allow them privacy but Not remove any data used by Law Enforcement in the event of an Amber Alert or the like. Some of us RSO's in Texas would be happy if we could just maintain steady employment and residence without fear of being moved or fired because the info on the web led them to being mis-identified as a more dangerous preditor than he/she in reality is.

When a Criminal proves he/she is worthy of less supervision, allow it to them. If they bite the allowing hand, Reincarserate them.

Rewards for Good behavior, un-missed anual registration appointments and maybe even a polygraph. can raise the esteem of the Offender and make them work harder for the next bonus and maybe one day freadom from "Public" view. While for the safety of the comunity and children their Info should remain available to Law Enforcement. While the bottom line is still protecting Society, Children and inocent people.

Anonymous said...

To the probation officer, I agree, you might want to find other work- -anyone in YOUR field with THAT type of attitude is a lot more dangerious than the felon you are supposed to be supervising- -I agree with the person that wrote about "rewards" of a RSO- -this SHOULD be done. Fact- -just about 60% of RSO became a RSO by someone crying "witch"- known fact. It is WAY to easy to cry "sex offense"- -especially if the person that is being accused doesn't have any money and this is done out of "spite"- -no one cares, not one single person, it just seems easier for the lazy people that supposed to run out justice to lock someone up than to find out if they REALLY are guilty. In a nut shell, Texas has the WORST justice system in our nation- -and number one on putting anyone in prison in our nation. Why? "Money talks, BS walks"