“There are lies, and then there are damn lies” — Mark Twain, paraphrased

By Radley Balko….

Much of the destructive, extra-punishment punishment we inflict on sex offenders is due to the widely held belief that they’re more likely to re-offend than the perpetrators of other classes of crimes. This has been the main justification for the Supreme Court’s authorization of sex-offender registries and for holding sex offenders indefinitely after they’ve served their sentences. Lower courts have then cited those rulings to justify a host of other measures, from severe restrictions on where sex offenders can live to GPS monitoring of their every move.

The problem, as Adam Liptak writes at the New York Times, is that the claim just isn’t true.

Last week at the Supreme Court, a lawyer made what seemed like an unremarkable point about registered sex offenders.

“This court has recognized that they have a high rate of recidivism and are very likely to do this again,” said the lawyer, Robert C. Montgomery, who was defending a North Carolinastatute that bars sex offenders from using Facebook, Twitter and other social media services.

The Supreme Court has indeed said the risk that sex offenders will commit new crimes is “frightening and high.” That phrase, in a 2003 decision upholding Alaska’s sex offender registration law, has been exceptionally influential. It has appeared in more than 100 lower-court opinions, and it has helped justify laws that effectively banish registered sex offenders from many aspects of everyday life.

But there is vanishingly little evidence for the Supreme Court’s assertion that convicted sex offenders commit new offenses at very high rates. The story behind the notion, it turns out, starts with a throwaway line in a glossy magazine.

The quote came from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, and it claims that the recidivism rate for sex offenders is 80 percent. If true, that would indeed be “frightening and high.” But it isn’t true. At Slate, David Feige brings the data:

In the most comprehensive single study on reoffense rates to date, the U.S. Department of Justice followed every sex offender released in almost 15 states for three years. The recidivism rate? Just 3.5 percent. These numbers have been subsequently verified in study after study. The state of Connecticut Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division did a five-year study that found a recidivism rate of 3.6 percent. A Maine study found that released sex offenders were arrested for a new sex crime at a rate of 3.9 percent. Government studies in Alaska, Delaware, Iowa, and South Carolina have also replicated these results—all finding same-crime recidivism rates of between 3.5 and 4 percent.

We’ve discussed this before here at The Watch, as well as other areas where the Supreme Court has relied on bad information in important rulings. And this is just a small slice of a much larger problem — the courts’ inability to reconcile the evolving nature of science with the criminal-justice system’s premium on precedent and finality.

Read the rest of the article at the Washington Post.

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12 Thoughts to ““There are lies, and then there are damn lies” — Mark Twain, paraphrased”

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  1. W John Martius Jr

    I thought lawyers are “officers of the court” and are required to speak the truth. When that premise breaks down, what hope is there for the rest of us? Right leaning US Supreme Court is likely to be lazy and believe all that is brought before them unless they are compelled to look at facts and statistics and punish those who come before them with falsehoods.
    Our justice system is severely corrupted with commercial penal facilities tasked with keeping themselves in profit mode which equals keeping people in jail. Who better to fill the cells than those least able to defend their cause.
    Very sad state of affairs indeed. This nation is in trouble… indeed.

  2. Jim M.

    I totally agree. Our sex offender laws and registry are similar to the Salem paranoia of years ago. I also agree sexual crimes should not be tolerated, however, the extreme overkill of lifetime branding and punishment needs to stop.

  3. Rich

    The lawyer who argued for Packingham should have spoken up and refuted the false claim about high recidivism. He should not have allowed false claims to go uncorrected. If he had, it might have prompted discussion among the justices. This quack lawyer should not be used again.

    1. rwvnral

      The time for oral arguments is fixed. The Court will not allow either side to take more than its allotted time. David Goldberg was not “used” but was rewarded for his willingness to coordinate the amici briefs that were submitted in support of Packingham. Mr. Goldberg did this without compensation from anyone…but on account of his commitment to this case and his belief in the petitioner’s constitutional rights. This was NOT the appropriate case to drag the court’s noses through its own vomit. Mr. Goldberg’s job was to represent the interests of his client, Mr. Packingham. Those interests would not have been served by forcing the court into a discussion of statistical data that IS NOT relevant to the question presented. To have done so would have been an extreme waste of time, counter to his client’s best interests, and would have invited the anger of the Court. Oral arguments are not a time for grandstanding or high stakes rhetoric. And Mr. Goldberg is certainly no “quack.” He is a well respected and experienced litigator.

      1. George

        I disagree, Mr. Goldberg should have countered the NC AG’s statement in some fashion, by telling the truth!

        This should have been at the top of the argument. Please don’t continue to defend the gentleman, there’s quite enough of defending ineptness going on in our country right now. He screwed up and in this particular instance that very well may have swayed this case in NC’s favor. I pray not but we do not need bumbling fools representing us in cases such as this. We have precious time and few attempts at this level. Mr. Goldberg missed a golden opportunity to expose the big lie orally in the highest court and he let it slip through his hands.

        Whoever chose this gentleman to represent the registered citizens of North Carolina and throughout the nation really screwed up as well.

      2. rwvnral

        Again, Mr. Goldberg was not “chosen”. He offered his services on behalf of the Supreme Court Clinic at Stanford University to coordinate amici and present the case. Who among us is 1) trained as an attorney, 2) licensed to practice before the Supreme Court, 3) HAS practiced before the Supreme Court before, and 4) is prepared to do several hundred hours worth of work for free? Anyone? We are in no position to curse or complain about the work being done for us merely because it’s not “perfect” or comports with our every demand. Five years ago, there wasn’t an attorney who would lift a finger for us.

      3. There was a strategic move here

        Well Said Robin, the counter data was presented in briefs to the court where the recidivism rate was addressed as it should have been strategically and tactically. Oral arguments were not on the rate, but on a First Amendment issue. The rate info is in front of the Justices to read and comprehend. Justice Kennedy may not like what he reads, but the facts are there for him to read in addition to his own words (same with the other Justices).

        Now, we only hope the rate is addressed by the court in their paperwork, but it won’t be in a high fashion since it was not the item to be addressed, where the First Amendment issue is. If it is not, then one should be surprised and pissed it was not addressed, but also maybe not too surprised given it was a First Amendment issue being addressed and not a rate.

        Disdain for the rate matter is understood and should be continued until it is fixed however, that may be, but in this situation, you don’t return fire on this topic in the middle of something else being discussed.

  4. In Search of Liberty

    If you remember your history, Adolf Hitler was very effective at this sort of thing. He told the German people lies big as the Pacific ocean and for hypnotic effect he repeated them very often. And that is the crux of proponent arguments in favor of SSO laws: tell a big lie, i.e., high recidivism among SOs, and for hypnotic effect, repeated it very often. I heard a trial attorney make a very insightful comment on the radio the other day. To paraphrase he said, American society has gotten to the point where anyone can make any type statement make any type of accusation against anyone and offer no proof of the matter what-so-ever yet, that person will be believed by the general public just because he/she said it. A good case in point is president Trump’s assertion that former president Obama wire tapped is headquarters during the presidential campaign—a bomb shell allegation. Now you would think that making an accusation like that Trump would most certainly lay out his evidence to prove such an allegation; however, to date with much prodding by the press to come forth with proof, neither he nor his staff has offered one iota of proof. And this from the president of the US!!! I was a youngster then but I remember president Eisenhower. He was a man’s man. A person with a high level of honesty and integrity. He said what he meant and meant what he said. I have not seen a president like that since. I take that back, President Reagan came close to this type of man. But every president after that has been full of S%$#. But I blame the American people for being politically as well as historically ignorant! Today’s American I call the “TMZ” generation because their news and information comes from this faddish TV channel and others like it.

  5. Bill

    Anyone seen an answer from SCOTUS on Michigan’s request for review; it’s day 89 now.

    1. rwvnral

      The Supreme Court will conference about the Snyder Petition on March 24.

      1. Bill

        How does one find out about these things? Is it on the SCOTUS website?


      2. rwvnral

        I typically get better information from SCOTUSBlog.