Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Q&A with Kristen M. Zgoba, co-author of “The Adam Walsh Act: An Examination of Sex Offender Risk Classification Systems”

Zgoba, K. M., Miner, M., Levenson, J.  Knight, R., Letourneau, E., & Thornton, D. (2015). The Adam Walsh Act: An Examination of Sex Offender Risk Classification Systems. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. Ifirst


This study was designed to compare the Adam Walsh Act (AWA) classification tiers with actuarial risk assessment instruments and existing state classification schemes in their respective abilities to identify sex offenders at high risk to re-offend. Data from 1,789 adult sex offenders released from prison in four states were collected (Minnesota, New Jersey, Florida, and South Carolina). On average, the sexual recidivism rate was approximately 5% at 5 years and 10% at 10 years. AWA Tier 2 offenders had higher Static-99R scores and higher recidivism rates than Tier 3 offenders, and in Florida, these inverse correlations were statistically significant. Actuarial measures and existing state tier systems, in contrast, did a better job of identifying high-risk offenders and recidivists. As well, we examined the distribution of risk assessment scores within and across tier categories, finding that a majority of sex offenders fall into AWA Tier 3, but more than half score low or moderately low on the Static-99R. The results indicate that the AWA sex offender classification scheme is a poor indicator of relative risk and is likely to result in a system that is less effective in protecting the public than those currently implemented in the states studied.

Could you talk us through where the idea for the research came from?

I’d like to say that we had a great story for coming up with the research idea but it was truthfully born out of necessity.  I was in the process of finalizing a National Institute of Justice grant on Megan’s Law and my co-authors and I believed it was necessary and responsible to evaluate the new federal law that became known as the Adam Walsh Act.  The bill was signed into law without an empirical foundation and sought to strengthen many of the stipulations of Megan’s Law.  My co-authors and I were thankful that the National Institute of Justice approved the funding and allowed the empirical research process and findings to speak for themselves. The idea of who would take the lead unfolded in a more comical way with everyone stepping back and claiming they were too busy to be lead!  Having pulled the shortest straw and having the shortest academic career resulted in me becoming the PI.

What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?

I think my co-authors would agree that much of the process was a challenge! Our project included five busy researchers, from five different states, with five different IRB approvals and state agency regulations.  I would say the process of data coding and collection probably posed the greatest challenges to my co-authors and I. First, we recognized that in order to code the Static risk assessments, the researchers and the assistants needed to be trained by David Thornton. Since we hailed from five different states (New Jersey, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Florida and South Carolina) we quickly determined that video conferencing was the most fiscally responsible (although a few of us did make our way to warmer climates for group coding!).  This three day training increased the validity of our data coding and our understanding of the instrument.  A second challenge that was particularly burdensome was the unavailability of consistent data collection across the states. Some of the data points were more readily available in some of the states and my co-authors and I had to be creative with our requests for additional data and/or the statistical methods that would take the missing data into consideration.  The states involved with the study were sometimes hindered by an inability to provide information that was beyond their control.  You learn through the process that items that might be intuitive for research purposes, do not necessarily have an operational purpose for state correctional agencies.

What kinds of things did you learn about co-authorship as a result of producing this article?

I quickly learned that I was co-authoring a grant and paper with very busy people!  I think everybody on this grant had experience as a co-author, so we became skilled at establishing schedules and responsibilities upfront.  We used an internet tool to schedule mutually agreeable conference call times and our responsibilities functioned in chronological order.  We then passed each manuscript version on to the next person in line. There were definitely points when we hit periods of natural slowdowns- exams, holidays, summer break, etc. I can’t say we didn’t experience some ‘topic fatigue’, but we understood this would be the case, given the length of our project and our very busy schedules.  I think we also learned that our writing styles varied, as is sometimes the case with larger groups, and our final products needed some verbal ‘smoothing’ and refining.  One difficulty when working with larger groups is having a final product that does not appear as though five people joined together five different papers.

What do you believe to be to be the main things that you have learnt about the impact of sex offenders registration, as well as the related legislation?

The results of our analysis were in line with findings from other studies seeking to determine best practices in the field of sexual offending legislation.  We confirmed that sexual recidivism rates were low, as most of us had reported in our previous research. The sexual recidivism rate was approximately 5% at 5 years and 10% at 10 years.  This of course should lead many to question the ‘one size fits all’ basis of the Adam Walsh Act and many other types of sex offender policies.  Furthermore, we discovered that actuarial measures and existing state tier systems did a better job of identifying high-risk offenders and recidivists than did the AWA. After multiple analyses, the results indicated that the AWA sex offender classification scheme was a poor indicator of relative risk and was likely to result in a system that was less effective in protecting the public than those currently implemented in the states studied.

Now that you’ve published the article, what are some implications for practitioners?

I think the main implication for practice is really that the manner by which states were handling sex offender registration, classification and subsequent notification was working. At least, relative to the current implementation of the AWA, it was working.  Unfortunately, the hands of many practitioners now may be tied to a system that is less reliable than what they were previously using.  This presents a disservice to all involved.

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