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August 17, 2005

More politicians participating in sex offender panic

A few weeks ago, I noted here that the on-going social panic over sex offenders is finding expression in new "get-tough" sex offender legislation and proposals emerging at federal, state and local levels.  This week, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is just the most high-profile politician jumping on this "tough-on-crime" bandwagon:

All of these articles, and many of the other recent stories of new sex offender laws and proposals archived here, reinforce my often-stated concerns about criminal justice policy being unduly driven by headline-making anecdotes of horrible individual cases (even in other states) rather than by refined data-driven policy analysis.  (In this astute post on the California bills, TalkLeft comments that "the surest way to tell a politician is in trouble is when all of a sudden he or she jumps on the 'get tough on criminals' bandwagon.")

Interestingly, some of the articles linked above note the potential high cost of proposals like lifetime GPS monitoring of sex offenders.  As has been true in other "tough-on-crime" cycles, economic realities will likely serve as the only brake on these sorts of politically-driven "get tough" sex offender initiatives.

UPDATE:  Thanks to this thoughtful post by Gideon, I see that my interest in refined data-driven policy analysis has subject me to some unkind words in this post from Tom at Confutatis Maledictis.  Tom suggests I need "a foray out of the ivory tower," but his post, much like a lot of the rhetoric coming from many politicians these days, falls prey to the same sort of anecdote-driven assumptions without addressing deeper realities. 

Tom claims that "it has been empirically demonstrated that [sex] offenders are the least amenable to rehabilitation and the most likely to re-offend," and he then cites to two recent high-profile cases to support this broad assertion.  But a comprehensive sentencing commission report on these issues from Tom's home state of Virginia spotlights a far more nuanced reality because not all sex offenders are created equal.  The data show that the reoffense and rehabilitation story for a small group of high-risk offenders is disconcerting, but for other offenders the reality is much more encouraging.  (This article, entitled "New hope for sex offender treatment," from the American Psychological Association discusses these issues effectively.)

Consider, for example, this recent Washington State Study, reporting that "sex offenders re-offend at lower rates than those convicted of other felonies.  After five years, 15% of sex offenders return to prison for new offenses compared to 43% of offenders convicted of property crimes."  Also consider this data from the Texas Department of Health State Services which reports not only lower sex offender recidivsm rates, but also that "research and clinical reports have begun to demonstrate that a number of treatment methods are effective in modifying some forms of sexual deviance."  The data in this area are subject to many assessments, but my chief fear is that politicians are motivated more by polling data than by reoffense and rehabilitation data when they develop the latest "tough-on-crime" campaign.

Tom suggest I want to "prevent the people from protecting themselves and their children," but that could not be farther from the truth.  Rather my goal is to push the public dialogue toward sound data-driven analysis so that we get effective policy reforms rather than hollow rhetoric and cost-ineffective proposals that only distract from doing the real, challenging work required for effective sentencing and corrections policy-making.  I think that "the hard working people who just want to ensure their kids' safety" deserve nothing less.

ANOTHER UPDATETom at Confutatis Maledictis has added a thoughtful addendum to his original post which articulates effectively the view that, because of the potential harms of sex offenses, he would rather risk significantly over-punishing some sex offenders than risk additional crimes.  I agree with a lot of the sentiments expressed in Tom's addendum, though I fear the tone and approach reflected in Tom's original post fosters an environment in which, as reported here by Gideon, private citizens feel emboldened to take matters into their own hands by "slaying and dismembering a convicted sex offender."

August 17, 2005 at 11:38 AM | Permalink


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» Roundup of latest proposed sex offender legislation from a Public Defender
Once again, Prof. Berman points to several articles from different states where high-profile politicians have entered the tough on sex offenders fray. Almost all these proposals call for life-time registration and monitoring via GPS. What is interestin... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 18, 2005 9:02:36 AM

» Roundup of latest proposed sex offender legislation from a Public Defender
UPDATE: Prof. Berman responds to Tom's post and provides several studies that show that sex offenders are less likely to re-offend as compared to inmates convicted of other crimes. A comprehensive sentencing commission report [pdf] from Virginia, A rep... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 18, 2005 1:53:28 PM


Except in CT, ofcourse, where Gov. Rell has proposed that the offenders pay for the mandatory lifetime tracking themselves...

Posted by: Gideon | Aug 18, 2005 8:49:03 AM

Gideon, Considering that these people will have little chance of actually having the money to pay for this monitoring, it is unlikely that that will happen.

Posted by: S.cotus | Aug 18, 2005 9:02:55 AM

S.cotus, I haven't been able to find the exact details of her proposal, probably because she hasn't asked someone to draft the legislation yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if it fell through. Unfortunately, it doesn't change the fact that lifetime GPS monitoring will be a colossal expenditure.

Posted by: Gideon | Aug 18, 2005 10:36:36 AM

As published in the Asbury Park Press in Monmouth County, New Jersey, a growing number of towns are attempting to "zone out undesirables."
Soon there will be requirements for every part of who and what you are, in order to live in any reasonable neighborhood.

Posted by: Cathy | Aug 18, 2005 10:49:01 AM

Good post, Doc.

The article you linked to recently, 'Against Prediction' by Bernard Harcourt, argued that using data driven "actuarial" analysis to drive enforcement patterns actually increased overall crime unless, e.g., in this case, sex offenders have higher relative elasticity of offending to policing than other criminals -- in other words, if increased policing is more likely to make sex offenders avoid offending than other clases of criminals.

The Washington and Texas data say 'maybe,' but if the most draconian predictors of bad behavior are right -- if sex offenders can't be cured and will offend no matter what -- then according to Harcourt's Chicago School law and economics reasoning, heightened enforcement among sex offenders would cause overall crime to rise.

Did you read Harcourt's article, and what are your thoughts on that, given your (and God knows my) reliance on data driven analysis?

Posted by: Scott | Aug 18, 2005 6:41:02 PM

Do I take it Scott (this is sort of a wild guess), that the hypothesis is that there actually is a cost to overconcentrating criminal justice resources (which are finite) on one class of criminals -- other classes will likely benefit from shortage of police time, prosecutor and judge time, and jail space devoted to them, resulting in a rise in overall crime? But, and here's where I don't quite follow (probably because it requires one of those lousy economics graphs), this would not be true if, for some reason, sex offenders are more responsive to harsh punishment, in which the absolute total might fall? But I sense that might only be considering the diversion of policing and not prosecution and incarceratory resources?

Am I clueless or what?

Posted by: David in NY | Aug 18, 2005 8:22:07 PM


The article I mentioned is very extensive and also makes the case against using actuarial prediction in prosecution and particularly sentencing, in part because of a "ratcheting" effect that actually can cause worse disparities if the predictions are accurate. I couldn't do it justice in a comment section. Here's the URL, provided last week by Doc Berman:


And yes, it required several lousy economics graphs! I'm not actually sure I agree with it, but I was an economics major in college, so I'm open to that brand of analysis, and if true, it has far-reaching implications for a wide range of criminal justice policy subjects.

Posted by: Scott | Aug 19, 2005 11:51:48 AM

I am a registered sex offender in ohio, I am a level one having to register for 5 more years. My crime ( sexual Battery) was against a 23 year old girlfriend. I am not a child molester,yet I am subject to the same laws and witch hunts tactics that pedophile faces. Our laws make no distinction between people who made a mistake or plead guilty due to lack of funds or fear of a extreme sentence to those who have commited horrible crimes against children. I have a wife and two small children. I work two jobs to support my family and everyday of my life I fear for my family's safety, for my job, for my living situation because my face is on the internet listing me a "sex offender". As a sex offender you cannot defend yourself because of the social consequences so there will be no change in the laws and as the sex offender population grows we will see more extreme laws. I just want to cry out to the world that I am not a monster, I am just an everyday person trying to live a normal life. There are thousands more in my situation.

Posted by: rk | Sep 13, 2005 2:10:46 PM

Kentucky state government worker that is participating in a Certified Managers Program. My group has been charged with finding hard facts on GPS Monitoring for Sexual Offenders. Hard Data to show GPS works and with what type of sexual offenders it works with, and why it works. Secondly, we have been charged with doing the same intensive research on Chemical and Surgical Castration for Sex Offenders. Do these methods reduce repeat offenses, or not. We have TWO weeks to come up with some good hard evidence on this topic. UGH!!!

Posted by: angie wolfe | Sep 15, 2005 11:08:46 PM

I'd like to offer my comments on the recent discussion about GPS tracking and sex offenders. I am a graduate student. I agree with professor Berman's view that requiring lifetime tracking for released sex offenders is a reactionary idea. Futher the industry that stands to reap huge financial gains has convinced us that using this superior technology will prevent crimes from being committed - but there is no hard data that proves this. California has already put this legislation in place. I say, let's wait and see if it works before spending billions of taxpayer dollars with no guaranttes. The GPS industry tells us that GPS tracking will cost around cost was twelve dollars per day, per offender, but this is not the whole picture. That is like saying the entire cost of a car is only the price you pay at the dealer. You still must take into consideration dozens of other expenses, some expected and some not expected.

Don’t base decisions on misleading information. The facts are these: GPS allows a parole officer to simply monitor from a remote location where a molester is located. It does not stop a crime from being prevented – only prison does that. Therefore, a released offender can remain at home and still molest and murder children – that is exactly what happened to seven year old Megan Kanka. A released offender can go back and forth to work and still molest children. A released offender can follow directions from his parole officer perfectly and still find opportunities to molest children. Eventually this will serve as an alternate to longer prison terms, which is really the only way to prevent the crime of child molestation.

I would be very interested in hearing Professor Berman's reaction to my ideas and any additional arguments.

Posted by: mc | Nov 9, 2005 11:50:05 AM

great article. i completly agree with you

Posted by: criminal background check | Nov 14, 2005 7:53:30 PM

I am an Honours law student studying at Otago, New Zealand. I am currently researching a dissertation on controlling sex offenders. New legislation has recently been introduced into this country which will provide for GPS monitoring of sex offenders (amongst other controls). I find the views expressed on this website very interesting. It seems like New Zealand has fallen for the same rhetoric common in the US. Currently there is not much New Zealand literature on monitoring sex offenders or alternative options such as chemical castration. I am particularly interested in the human rights concerns. If anyone has any information/suggestions it would be very much appreciated.


Posted by: Shaun | May 21, 2006 1:14:15 AM

It has been shown that chemical castration does not reduce violent tendencies or violent sexual offenses/attacks. Violent tendencies reside in the mind, not the testicles. A person with violent tendencies, even though they may be physically impotent (and maybe especially because) tend to become even more violent and brutal. It does not work at all for that purpose. For the purposes of curtailing the sex drive in non-violent offenders, it also does not work. Their libido may dampened it a little bit, but they can still physically get an erection. And, according to the data, it is really a red herring anyway - the reoffense rate (meaning the commission of a subsequent sex crime) for sex offenders is actually lower than for almost all other types of crime, unlike what the media and unscrupulous politicians keep telling us. And those that do reoffend belong to a very small number of dangerous persons who DO need to serve life sentences, be monitored or civilly committed. [for reoffense rate information, visit our website and Resource Library]

The GPS industry, as it was stated by another poster, stands to benefit in a huge way financially. It is not a prevention tool, despite what some say. It can be implemented with several differing systems: real-time, daily, or semi-daily logs. Either way, someone who is determined to reoffend will do so. It is also not always bug-free: just like cell phones, there are "dead spots" - this can cause a compliant registered sex offender [RSO] to be returned to prison (on a violation of probation/parole) even though no new sex crime was actually committed. In short, it is not effective at _preventing_ anything and it is basically useless except for hikers and those travelling on a trip.

The costs of GPS monitoring, as "mc" mentioned, include myriad other associated costs: GPS bracelet/anklet units and corresponding bases/charging stands, software, equipment necessary to actually implement the software, employment of additional staff (agents available to monitor the blips, agents available to intercept the blips out in the field), and additional resources to cover the subsequent court cases. There are many hidden costs with which the states will be burdened.

The reality is that the majority of RSOs are virtually unemployable, thanks to laws that require the listing of their employer's name and address on the Registry. Employers, as you can understand, are not happy to be co-branded with the social kiss of death. Since we do not have debtor's prison, if the RSO is unemployed or underemployed and unable to pay, the cost will fall to the state.

GPS is not, therefore, a viable solution - it is wildly expensive with very little return on investment in terms of public safety and prevention of new sex offenses. Since the vast majority (over 90%) of sex crimes are committed by someone who is NOT on the sex offender registry, and the vast majority do NOT reoffend (after having completed treatment and community control terms), policy that mandates tracking everyone is foolish and a waste of taxpayer funds that could so much better be used to prevent sex crimes.

As "rk" mentioned (and I notice no one responded or even acknowledged his post), there are very large numbers of RSOs who have families that they are trying to support and provide for - with the additional costs of GPS, it will jeopardize their families' living situation. We all recoil when we hear of seniors having to split pills, or forgo food or heat in order to pay for their prescriptions. Well, this is a similar case: RSOs will have to forgo food and other necessities for their families (read and remember: innocent wives and children) in order to pay for the GPS unit and service. Of course, this is in addition to the many states who also charge a steep registration fee and yearly update of drivers license, probation fees and others costs.

While NO ONE condones, excuses or defends sex offenses, it is really very sad that people do not even think of what happens to the family after the conviction. The majority of times, when there is a child victim, that child is part of the offender's family. All the public shaming, ostracism, and vilification are automatically transferred to the children of RSOs, too. How would we expect them to feel when they have to walk out to the car past the protesting neighbors screaming obscenities at them, enraged that they should have to live near such "scum"? How could the collective and pervasive stigma NOT affect them and be incorporated into their identities? And if they were the victim, what they learn is that adults who say they are "here to help" only have their own agenda, and will drop them like a hot potato when their agenda is fulfilled. No one cares what they have to say or what they want post-conviction. When addressing the court post-conviction, victims have even been told that they are a "non-party" and their position and requests are irrelevant. This is a terrible tragedy in our nation today.

We may want to help the GPS companies' investors rich, make our selves feel better with an utterly false sense of security, but what lessons are we teaching this generation of children? Children, _except those with a sex offender in their families_, are precious and deserve to be protected and cherished. In reality, ALL children deserve this. Neither GPS, residency restrictions, nor longer sentences will accomplish this worthy goal.

Bad policies are made in the heat of an emotional moment or in respnse to an emotional issue. This may be the most emotional issue and the worst public policy yet.

If you are doing research or are just curious about the issues surrounding sex offenders, sex offenses or are interested in finding real, viable and effective solutions, please visit our Resource Library: - there are many documents, including official US gDepartment of Justice reports and studies, as well as those from state's Departments of Corrections, FBI, Canadian Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness and many highly regarded researchers and mental health experts. There are many different aspects to this entire issue, with corresponding subject areas in the Library. It really is worth your time to educate yourself.

Carolyn Ferguson
Executive Director
SOhopeful International, Inc.

Posted by: Carolyn Ferguson, SOhopeful International | Oct 3, 2006 9:15:45 PM

Most sex offenders have families, friends, relatives, and children. Some are required to register for much lesser crimes of flashing, incest, prostitution, and a host of other offences.

Contrary to the media’s torch, grouping all registered sex offenders as dangerous. Even the DOJ in a report states American politicians have lied.
This you can find on the Department Of Justice website,
November 2003, NCJ 198281. http://www.ojp.gov/bjs/pub/ascii/rsorp94.txt
Only 3.5% of new sex offences are committed by offender on the sex offender's registry. The remaining 96.5% are committed by unregistered citizens.
See how 3 year old children have been placed on the registry and how citizens are held indefinitely after teir sentence has been served.
See it now on You Tube at

Best regards,
Keith Richard Radford Jr.

Posted by: Keith Richard Radford Jr. | Nov 15, 2006 4:48:42 PM

I am a registered sex offender whose incident took place 20 years ago and has to suffer the the same penalities and restrictions as a pedofile

Posted by: WAGNER | Jun 10, 2007 1:17:45 PM

Discrimination allows superiority where truth is hidden and corruption tends to creep in.

This is the human equation.

People change day to day. Things change, steal rusts while conceited blows away, but the energy that makes us who we are moves through us as we experience our lives.

Governments, Advocates, Churches, and Media put pressure on sex offenders who are struggling daily to make a way for their families.

These groups are one in the same who have created the realm of secrecy and oppress for gain.

To be ashamed of being a flawed human who makes mistakes, is the responsibility of the person/group/s allowing laws of decimation which is abuse.

Inflicting pain on any person who has been betrayed by that societies recklessness to hide the truth because of its own shame is the ultimate in irresponsibility.

By continuing to advocate lifetime sentences, separation, eradication, concerning sexual offenses is recognition of the breakdown of group/s and any system/s which supports this human rights abuse .

There can be no justice where the responsible party is the society which refuses acceptance of its error.

Thinking that labeling anyone concerning life and death decisions with regard to sexual offenses has no validity.

The stigma/demonization/and continuance of the myth is perpetrated by the group/s and any system/s that makes people suffer for a belief that has only for centuries hidden its own truth.

Please take time to write those who can change our laws.

What ever we do we do to ourselves as money and power leads us by the ring in our nose rendering us unable to hear or see beyond the sound of our own greed.

Mr. & Mrs. Keith Richard Radford Jr.

[email protected]

Posted by: Keith Richard Radford Jr | Aug 4, 2007 8:04:48 AM

i am a level one sex offender .i was convicted of having a picture of a child nude .was a "D" felony and was dropped to a "A" misdorminor. no other sex crimes to report on my record . my exwife turned my computer over to the police .i have never harmed ,raped or hurt a child in my 52 years of life.i was sentenced 6 years probation and 20 years registration as a sex offender . and as for probation they are and well treat you like you were a level 3 sex offender. since then i've lost 5 jobs , many friends and now live alone. i have one son 13,6 grand kids and love then to death . i cant take my son to basketball , footballs , hockey ,or any movies ,because there maybe other children their.my life is my son and i can't do anything with him so he can see that his dad really cares for him and that i want him to be the best he can be. their are times i feel like ending it all. i am just a dad who loves his son !

Posted by: | Oct 2, 2007 8:31:47 PM

the last post that is under keith richard radford jr aug. 4 2007 is not his post that is mine

Posted by: larry | Oct 3, 2007 9:40:20 PM

The 1,2,3's of sex offenders.
1. The recidivism rate of sex offenders is under 5%
2. 90% of all sex crimes are committed within the family.
3. 92% of all sex crimes are perpetrated by people not on the sex offender registry.
If the bulls eye is 5% of the target and the bulls eye scores no points, what justifies the billions of tax payer dollars for the project?

Posted by: Keith Richard Radford Jr | Oct 16, 2007 7:57:36 PM

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Posted by: | Oct 14, 2008 9:21:30 PM

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