The original idea for increasing penalties and restrictions, and for creating the public registry, was that harsh punishment and the public branding of offenders would enhance public safety – saving children, especially, from falling victim to sexual predators. In practice, however, the rapid expansion of crime and punishment in this area of the law has created a clumsy system that has diluted those original intentions beyond recognition. As of March 1, there were nearly 63,000 persons on Texas' public database administered by the state's Department of Public Safety, which adds roughly 100 new names to the list each week. The database includes not only serial rapists and pedophiles but also thousands of offenders ... whose conduct, while considered criminal because the girls involved were younger than the legal age of consent (in Texas, that's 17), is hardly as alarming as that of a middle-aged man with a demonstrable sexual penchant for prepubescent girls – the sort of predator that in theory the laws target.
The registry now includes not only these "Romeo and Juliet" cases – youthful, consensual relationships – but others caught in the criminal justice web for things such as indecent exposure (which also includes the "poor drunk" popped by police while urinating behind a 7-Eleven in the middle of the night, says attorney Bill Habern, a veteran Texas pardon and parole specialist); it has never been retooled to differentiate among offenders and their offenses. So the crimes of serial rapists and pedophiles have been conflated with much more minor offenses under the catch-all term "sex offender," leading many to believe that everyone listed on the registry is in fact worthy of continuing public scorn and fear. "The public in general only hears, 'He's a registered sex offender.' Through ignorance, they believe that is synonymous with 'sexual predator,'" says Austin Police Department Lt. Greg Moss. "Registered sex offenders are not only sexual predators."
An expert on the enforcement of the state's sex offender laws, Moss is the former supervisor over the APD's Sex Offender Apprehension and Registration Unit, a three-detective squad tasked with keeping track of more than 1,500 sexual offenders registered as living in the city of Austin – including Henry. Of those on Austin's list, Moss estimates that just 10% are "your sexually violent predators," those folks who "we should be proactively monitoring, to ensure they're abiding by probation and parole." But APD is responsible for monitoring everyone on the list – a task that is expensive and time-consuming and has very little, if any, positive impact on public safety.
Instead, a growing body of research on the effect of broad sex offender laws reflects that requiring thousands of individuals to register for increasingly long periods of time actually undermines public safety. "That's what the current science is telling us," says Liles Arnold, a sex offender treatment provider and chair of the state's Council on Sex Offender Treatment. Moreover, research also reflects that the restrictions placed on individuals by the municipalities in which they live – such as barring individuals from living near schools, parks, or in a home with young children, even if they're the offender's own children or siblings – create extensive collateral damage. "There are a growing number of registrants, not just in Texas but across the country," says Arnold. But there's no "delineation of who is dangerous or not."
Monday, September 20, 2010
Resources wasted on harsh punishments, registration for low-risk 'sex offenders'
While I was away Jordan Smith at the Austin Chronicle published an excellent story on wasted law enforcement resources devoted to Texas' sprawling sex-offender registration program. Here's a notable excerpt: