Cracking Down on Sex Offenders


Randall G. Shelden



It never ceases to amaze me how policy-makers create legislation, especially when it relates to crime.  Except for rare occasions, most crime-related policies are based upon emotion and worse-case scenarios, with a touch of fear thrown in.  I call this “exception-based policies” or “legislation based on anecdote.”


Such is the case with the current furor over “sex offenders.”  As with Megan’s Law, “Three strikes and you’re out, and similar previous legislation, an extreme case is treated as if it is the rule. I am referring here to what has been called “Jessica’s Law.”  Otherwise known as Proposition 83 in California, this proposed legislation is based upon a Florida case involving a 9-year-old girl called Jessica Lunsford who was kidnapped and murdered in February, 2005.  Tragic as this case was, it is inappropriate to base sweeping legislation upon it. This is for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it is unnecessary (since there are enough laws concerning sex offenders on the books already).  To make matters even more confusing, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger just signed into law a bill that would increase prison terms for certain sex offenders.


As noted recently in a story in the Los Angeles Times Proposition 83 “would ban all released sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park. Local governments could declare additional locations off-limits, and sex offenders would be monitored for life with an electronic tracking device. If passed, the measure would cost the state at least $200 million annually within a decade, according to the nonpartisan legislative analyst, largely because of the satellite tracking and police needed to enforce it.” 


As usual, the proposed legislation and the law signed by the governor are not based upon the research on sex offenders.  Rather they are based upon the stereotypical and exceptional case involving a complete stranger. 


What the research shows is that the overwhelming majority of those labeled as “sex offenders” are known to their victims.  This is especially the case where children are the victims.  Incidentally, this has also been the case for AMBER alerts, since less than 5% of these involve complete strangers – the vast majority of “kidnapped” children involve perpetrators that are family members (most often the real father).


Another absurd part of the proposed legislation is the prohibition of living within 2,000 feet of a school.  This ironically would prevent living just about anywhere within a large city and force these offenders to move to rural areas.  As one might easily guess, the bulk of the services offered to sex offenders are within large urban areas.  Rural areas are hardly equipped to provide such services.


There is another issue supporters are blind to: sex offenders rank among the least likely to commit another offense.  This was recently confirmed by a study by three of my colleagues using national data on 10,000 sex offenders released from prison in 1994.  These offenders were the least likely to recidivate.  Many other kinds of offenders had much higher recidivism rates, such as drug offenders, robbers and burglars. 


This raises the following question: if drug offenders, robbers and burglars (among several other kinds of offenders) are far more likely to re-offend, then why is there no discussion about banning them from certain geographical areas?  Why are drug offenders not banned from living near schools?  Why are homicide offenders not banned? 


As usual, this legislation is based upon fear and hysteria, rather than reasoned debate based upon factual evidence.  Citizens will have a false sense of security, thinking that their children will be safer from “sexual predators.”  Why not prohibit contact with family members, since statistically speaking they are the ones most likely to victimize children (look at the millions of cases of child abuse and the estimated 1,400 children killed by a parent or relative each year).  Further, according to the Department of Justice, 81% of the sexual assaults of children occur inside their own homes, with another 13% occurring either in school or within a commercial establishment.  Only 6% occur outside.  Also, 68% of murdered children under 6 were killed by a parent or other relative and another 28% were killed by an acquaintance.


One final comment is in order.  Many years ago someone made a comment to the effect that “we are always passing laws.  We might as well get up and dance.”  Indeed, in this age of reactionary politics, based upon falsehoods and exaggerations, we have a group of cynical politicians trying to make a name for themselves by sounding “tough on crime” when all they want is your vote.  The fact is, with regard to sex offenders or any other offender, these new laws, such as the one signed by Schwarzenegger, are totally unnecessary, since tough laws are already on the books and sex offenders (among others) are being tracked by an already overburdened parole system.  The sentences in this country are the toughest in the world already, with California leading the way (e.g., “Three-strikes”).


So for those of you out there who support this legislation and believe the nonsense coming out of the mouths of your legislators, be aware of one thing: your child will not be any safer, especially from those living in the same residence.  The perpetrator of the next child victim will not be the proverbial sexual predator roaming the streets looking for unguarded children, but rather the father, mother, uncle or other family member (not to mention priests!).


© 2006, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.