On Friday and Saturday April 20-21, 2012, the Florida chapter of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers held its annual conference. Our keynote speaker was Jennifer Dritt, Executive Director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence (representing all of the rape crisis centers in FL). During her talk, Ms. Dritt said clearly that she and her associates (victims' advocates) were unhappy with the state of the registration and notification laws in FL. During ad hoc discussions on the matter, we agreed that we could generally extrapolate that perspective to much of the same legislation in other states, federally, or even internationally.
In general, these pieces of legislation have public safety in mind, and I believe that the politicians and policymakers who enact them truly do have the intent to increase public safety. However, those of us who work specifically in the worlds of sexual abuse prevention, offender treatment, or services to those who have been victimized know that the empirical literature has not generally supported these laws, at least not insofar as there are obvious direct benefits, such as reduced reoffending.
Actually, we have seen from research published by ATSA members, like Jill Levenson of Lynn University in Florida (also a participant in the recent FL ATSA conference) and Elizabeth Letourneau (now of Johns Hopkins University) and Mike Miner of the University of Minnesota (dealing with juveniles who commit sexual offenses), that get tough on crime or get tough on offenders might not be the evidence-based way to go. Specifically regarding adult offenders, residency restrictions, public notification, and sexual offender registration appear to be more the result of political rhetoric than science. The alarming trend regarding juveniles appears to be a prevailing view that these youth are just "little adults" who must be managed in more or less the same manner as their adult counterparts. The evidence to date appears to strongly suggest that this is unlikely to be true.
Interestingly, when we look at some of the dynamic risk prediction schemes (e.g., Hanson et al.'s Dynamic Supervision Protocol) that are available to clinicians and probation/parole supervisors--at least on the adult side of the risk management house--it seems that many of the very factors linked to reoffending (e.g., social isolation/rejection, negative emotionality, lack of prosocial influences, inability to establish links to or a place in society, inability to comply with terms of re-entry) are the sorts of things that are realistic consequences of current residency restriction/public notification/registration practices. In short, by implementing such policies and legislation, we might actually make things worse by leading to destabilization of released offenders. Those who might counter that the answer is to simply stop releasing sexual offenders should consider that such a practice would ultimately cost taxpayers even more in terms of unnecessary incarceration and other associated costs for a group of offenders who, as a group, appear to reoffend at a rate of approximately 10-15% over 5 years or longer of follow-up (actually, many states are now reporting rates considerably lower--see Jon Brandt's blog post of February 22, 2012).
Certainly, there are subsets of the sexual offender population who pose a greater degree of risk than the 10-15% noted above, but the key is to appropriately identify these individuals and use our most stringent and resource-intensive measures (incarceration, supervision, treatment) with them. When we uniformly apply all measures to all offenders, we wash out their potential benefits by expending too many of our services in over-managing the low risk offenders at the expense of having enough time and resources (both human and financial) to appropriately manage the high risk offenders.
But, to get back to where we started...
I'm sure there are points on which Ms. Dritt and I might disagree, but this is not one of them: If the victims' advocates don't like these policies and those who work with offenders don't like these policies and the research suggests they do little, if anything, to reduce risk in their present incarnation, why do we still have them in their present forms?