Sex offenders who must update their registration with the Dallas police have been routinely turned away after waiting outside the department door for hours.
"I've got to abide by the law or they put me back in prison," said one offender who asked not to be identified.
Department spokesman C.L. Williams said the department "erred badly" by limiting the number of registrants to about three dozen a day in recent weeks, a short-term response to a manpower shortage during the State Fair of Texas. On one recent day, a small waiting room was packed and lines snaked down to the sidewalk outside the Jack Evans Police Headquarters. Similar scenes had been reported in recent weeks.Despite those assurances, Dallas residents and indeed, all of us should be alarmed that the sex offender registry has become so bloated that it stretches policing resources to the limit. In this rubber-meets-the-road example, it's monitoring the registry that got short shrift. Usually, though, it's other mundane but practically more important policing tasks which are ignored to waste time tracking people who for the most part aren't really a threat.
After the problem was called to its attention, the department stopped turning offenders away before they are registered.
Dallas residents shouldn't be "alarmed that there are large numbers of offenders in the general public who are out there unregistered because of this error," Williams said.
By trying to monitor everybody convicted of sex-related crimes - even those convicted only of minor, non-violent offenses and Romeo and Juliet romances - the system too often ends up montoring nobody. There's an "opportunity cost," to use economists' jargon, to the registry growing as big as it's become in recent years. During a budget crunch like cities are facing now, the problem may finally come to a head as departments devote scarce resources to perform such mundane, bureaucratic tasks with little public safety benefit.
This story reminds me of another one last month by Jordan Smith in the Austin Chronicle about the budget-busting expense of monitoring an ever-growing list of registered sex offenders, most of whom pose no ongoing risk. Smith wrote that:
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."Even police whose job it is to monitor these offenders said they were wasting resources tracking so many people who posed little threat, the Chronicle reported:
"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.As cities across the state face tighter budgets, coupled with ever-increasing demands for using criminal enforcement to solve a variety of social problems, Texas' over-large sex offender registry inevitably will strain law-enforcement resources in other cities besides Austin and Dallas, diverting focus from tasks that actually make the public more safe.
That's one of the reasons I find the attention paid to registered sex offenders on Halloween so ill-conceived. Between drunkenness and youthful vandalism there are actually significant public safety problems to deal with on Halloween, but law enforcement all over the state are focused on making sure registrants don't give out candy or put up decorations, despite the fact that the vast majority have no history of kidnapping children or committing violent sex crimes. Ironically, a 2008 study found "that over 95% of all sexual offense arrests were committed by first-time sex offenders, casting doubt on the ability of laws that target repeat offenders to meaningfully reduce sexual offending."
Tight budgets in the criminal justice arena will inevitably force re-evaluation of priorities as resources for such tasks level off or decline even as the number of registrants (and other demands for service) continue to grow. Scaling back the sex-offender registry dramatically would actually improve public safety. The biggest barrier to doing so, however is self-serving hype by the media and demagoguery by politicians, who have discovered a useful fiction with which to manipulate the public in pursuit of advertising and votes, respectively. I consider the whole exercise as pointless as it is cynical.