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Registries help feed nation’s thirst for mass incarceration

By Rick Anderson . . . The September 1988 rape and murder of 29-year-old Diane Ballasiotes in Seattle, Washington, followed by the 1989 rape and sexual mutilation of a 7-year-old Tacoma boy, were the seedlings of today’s nationwide sex offender registry laws – a 50-state network that tracks over 805,000 registrants and whose usefulness as a crime-prevention tool has been questioned and criticized.

Other cases from that same era – including the widely-reported 1989 kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota, which was solved only late last year – led to a series of 1990-2000 state and federal statutes that established central registries for sex offenders, as well as residency restrictions and civil commitment laws.

Attorneys and advocates for change wonder how many of the nation’s more than 805,000 registered sex offenders are in prison or jail on any given day just for violating registration requirements – which are technical violations rather than sex crimes, and did not even exist before 1990. And how much does that, and registry enforcement efforts, add to the rising costs of tracking and monitoring sex offenders? In Palm Beach County, Florida, one officer said 20 deputies are assigned full time to check on sex offenders and confirm their residences.

After a quarter-century, are sexual predator laws and nationwide sex offender registries delivering the benefits they promised? Or have we overreacted to the threat of “stranger danger” with throw-away-the-key excesses, damn the cost?

As even pro-registry crusader Patty Wetterling (Jacob’s mother) has said, wondering if things have gone too far: “We’ve cast such a broad net that we’re catching a lot of juveniles who did something stupid or different types of offenders who just screwed up. Should they never be given a chance to turn their lives around?”

Americans generally express belief that the registry system, which has federal oversight, helps to protect them, their families and their children from sexual predators. In reality, however, researchers and officers of the court such as Eric Tennen, a Boston criminal defense attorney who specializes in sexual assault cases, say registries fail to achieve their professed goals.

For starters, according to Tennen, “because of the myth that sex offenders reoffend at very high rates, many people believe that most sex offenses are committed by repeat offenders. In fact, up to 95 percent of all sexual offenses are committed by first time offenders,” who obviously are not required to register until after they’re caught.

Research has found that sex offenders have lower average recidivism rates in comparison to other offenders, though they are more likely to commit another sex offense than non-sex offenders (just as drug offenders are more likely to commit another drug-related crime, thieves are more likely to commit more thefts, etc.). According to an often-cited 2003 study published by the Department of Justice that examined recidivism rates of 9,691 sex offenders released from prison, the three-year arrest recidivism rate for sex-related crimes was 5.3 percent while the overall recidivism rate for any crime was 43 percent. As many sex crimes are not reported, however, resulting in incomplete data, recidivism rates for sex offenders are often questioned.

Eli Lehrer president and co-founder of the R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank – said that while the registries are intended to track predatory strangers who could reoffend, studies show that roughly 90 percent of sex offenders know their victims. “Random kidnappers, like the man who took Jacob Wetterling, are quite rare,” he explained. By most estimates, about a third of victims are family members of their abusers and most of the rest are victimized by someone their parents know.

Pedophiles, Lehrer noted, seldom kidnap their victims despite suggestions to the contrary in movies and novels. “The Polly Klass Foundation estimates that fewer than 100 children are kidnapped by strangers each year in the manner that Jacob Wetterling was,” Lehrer wrote in a recent study entitled “Rethinking Sex-Offender Registries,” published in the quarterly journal National Affairs.

“Many of these ‘stranger kidnappings’ involve children who were sitting in the back seats of stolen vehicles or interrupted another crime in progress. Parents wanting to protect their own children should worry much more about their own friends and relatives than random strangers.”

Fifty-three-year-old Danny James Heinrich, who killed Jacob Wetterling, was an exception. But he became the poster boy for child sex predators. His highly-publicized case helped inflame the belief that strangers were the ones children should fear most rather than people they were close to. Further, Heinrich had gotten away with his crime – until he confessed in 2016, almost 27 years later.

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