From the Captain Obvious files:
Sex offender registries draw criticism from some unlikely sources
Ida Lieszkovszky, Northeast Ohio Media Group
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on October 08, 2015 at 7:00 AM, updated October 09, 2015 at 2:08 PM
CLEVELAND, Ohio - You might think that all advocates for rape victims would support the practice of forcing sex offenders to publicly register their addresses after their release from prison. But you would be mistaken.
Growing numbers of victim advocates and criminal justice researchers are among those who have concluded that sex offender registries are too costly and provide little or no protection to the public.
"The registry gives the appearance that our community is safer, but we really question whether it lives up to that expectation," said Sondra Miller, president of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center.
Northeast Ohio Media Group contacted Miller and others to address both sides of an ongoing debate over the effectiveness of the registries, which are now used in every state.
In the beginning
Sex offender registries gained popularity after the 1994 rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka by a neighbor in New Jersey. "Megan's Law" was followed a decade later by the Adam Walsh Act, named for a 6-year-old boy who was abducted and murdered in Florida. Ohio began registering sex offenders in 1997.
Today, about 19,400 sex offenders are registered statewide, according to the Ohio Attorney General's office.
The Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department tracks an estimated 3,300 sex offenders at an annual cost of $675,000. That includes registering sex offenders, sending out fliers warning neighbors that an offender moved into the area, and tracking offenders who fail to report. Sheriff Clifford Pinkney declined to comment for this story.
How registries can help
Proponents of registries say the goal is to alert people to the presence of sex offenders in their neighborhoods and, by extension, help keep people and their children safe.
That's especially important for victims of sexual assault, according to Janine Deccola, a victim's advocate with the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office. The knowledge that an offender is being tracked helps victims "find a sense of safety or comfort" following a harrowing experience.
The registry is also a way to validate what victims have endured. Teresa Stafford, the senior director of advocacy and outreach at the Rape Crisis Center, said that's particularly true in cases of rape, where victims' accounts are often met with doubt or skepticism.
"So many people may not have believed them in the process and that's another public place where they can say yes, this person did rape me, this person did hurt me." Stafford said.
The rap on registries
Critics contend that registries are costly to maintain and are often inaccurate because of undocumented moves by sex offenders or offenders listing phony addresses. And Stafford questions how many people actually make use of the registry. According to the Attorney General's office, some 445,000 people statewide are signed up to receive alerts about newly registered sex offenders.
Critics also contend that the registries leave people with the false impression that most sexual assaults are committed by strangers.
Assistant State Public Defender Brooke Burns said the vast majority of sexual assaults are not committed by strangers down the street. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 85 percent of sexual assault cases, the victim and the offender knew each other or were related.
Sexual assaults are also one of the most underreported crimes. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 70 percent of sexual assaults are never reported. Among reported cases, the network estimates just 2 percent of rapists are convicted and sentenced, making them eligible to be included on a registry.
Cullen Sweeney, an attorney with the Cuyahoga County Public Defender's Office, said the registries also can't protect against a first-time offender.
"If it's not really making your children safer, then it doesn't really make financial sense or policy sense," Sweeney said. "And if it has negative consequences, like destabilizing the offender's lives, then it actually makes the community less safe."
Unlikely folks are opposed
It's not surprising that defense attorneys oppose the registries, but therapists and victim's advocates also are among those calling for change.
"The biggest frustration we have with the registry is it feeds into the myths that the general public has about sexual assault," Miller said. "It feeds this stranger-danger mentality when we know it's such a small fraction of the sexual assaults that occur in our community."
Miller said the registries give people a "false sense of security" that sex offenders can be easily identified and avoided, when that's not the case.
Tyffani Dent, a psychologist and vice president of the Ohio Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers who works with both victims and offenders, said registries spread law enforcement too thin. Deputies have to check in not only on repeat, violent offenders but also teenagers who sent illicit text messages to their girlfriends, and who pose little threat to their neighbors.
"I want for victims to get justice," she said. "Unfortunately, registration the way it is now doesn't do what it's designed to do."
Studies are critical of registries
Several large-scale studies have shown that registries don't do much to prevent criminals from committing new crimes.
A 2008 U.S. Department of Justice study concluded that "Megan's Law showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses."
A 2011 study from the University of Chicago found that "registered sex offenders have higher rates of recidivism" than those who did not have to register.
Another study published in 2011 found that a registration requirement has a deterrent effect on sexual offenders, but the notification aspect of the registries leads to higher rates of offense because of the social and financial costs to the offender.
A 2004 Canadian study found that "after 15 years, 73 percent of sexual offenders had not been charged with, or convicted of, another sexual offense."
Dent doesn't think the registry system should be abandoned entirely. Instead, she favors registering only the most dangerous offenders. That would free up resources for preventative measures and treatment, such as mental health therapy, which Dent said has been proven to reduce recidivism.
In particular, Dent said cognitive behavioral therapies, which address the way people think and behave, have been proven to reduce recidivism among sex offenders.
Burns, who primarily works with juveniles at the state defender's office, said that in the cases of young offenders in particular putting their names on a public registry inhibits them from reintegrating into society.
"It's really important that kids get proper treatment, intervention, and their needs are addressed so they don't reoffend, and I think that's far more effective than a registry is," she said.
Miller echoed that sentiment, and noted that victim's services and treatment programs are both underfunded, and could use some of the more than half a million dollars Cuyahoga County spends maintaining its registry.
"It really is a question of where do we put our resources where we're going to have the maximum impact and I'm not sure the sex offender registry is where we're getting the most impact," Miller said.