Time to decide: Will we settle for “feel-good” laws?

Originally published at the Times-Union, Albany, New York 11/30/21

Reprinted in full with permission.

By Sandy . . . Approximately 180,000 individuals are incarcerated in the United States for a sexual crime. The offenses range from violent rape to exhibitionism.

The vast majority will be released into the community to complete the sentence under probation or parole with some having served the full sentence inside. All will be required to register with their state’s sexual offense registry.

Upon release these persons are expected to secure living accommodations and employment. They are expected to effect successful community re-entry, including not reoffending.

The vast majority succeed at the latter. Various studies have arrived at different numbers, but a success rate of 95% is the generally agreed upon, across-the-board recidivism number.

The success rate for securing employment and a place to live is a different story. In some places, crippling restrictions on where those on the registry can live and work undo rehabilitative initiatives. New York does not have these per se, although, according to a Times Union piece, some courts have interpreted a law forbidding entrance to school or child care properties as somehow also applying to living accommodations in proximity to those places.

Neighbors living in areas where registrants have moved have found other ways to keep these “undesirables” from their midst. They protest, sometimes in vigilante fashion. They create petitions. They go to the media or to local politicians or law enforcement and make noise.

This is what members of a Glenville neighborhood did, and they succeeded at driving the man on the registry out of his home and their neighborhood. The online petition relies on fear tactics and lies, stating that the offender “is amongst the highest rates for Residivsm (sic) which means he will most likely offend again . . . We need to remove him before he strikes again.”

Both the town police chief and the state department of corrections verified that the registrant was in every way compliant with his regulations, breaking no laws, and entitled to be treated the same as every other citizen.

The community’s actions were based on fear born of ignorance.

The man they drove away had a conviction of criminal sexual contact with a boy he knew. Virtually all sexual crime committed against children and teens is committed by persons known and trusted by the victims. These persons are usually family members, authority figures, or peers.

Those who were instrumental in harassing this man from his home were practicing the worst kind of “NIMBY-ism – “Not in My Back Yard.” They were ignoring every shred of evidence about child sexual abuse. They either don’t know or don’t care that their relatives and close friends, that they themselves, are statistically at almost a hundred times greater risk of sexually abusing their children than is this stranger.

They either don’t know or don’t care that their actions are in direct opposition to all evidence showing that stability and community connectiveness are essential for and maximize successful rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, a New York state senator is attempting to codify extended restrictions on where persons on the registry may live and be. Does he know that every study done on the effectiveness of distance restrictions for registrants shows this to be bad public policy, not only failing to accomplish anything positive but often creating a host of negative consequences?

Every time neighbors harass a registrant into leaving his home, they make society less safe. Every time legislators or city councils block a registrant’s access to a decent place to live, from employment opportunities, or from needed services, they make society less safe.

It’s time to decide: Do we want “feel-good” laws, or do we want to do what actually works in creating a safer society?

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9 Thoughts to “Time to decide: Will we settle for “feel-good” laws?”

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  1. Tim in WI

    Another excellent article describing the impact of poor leadership as expressed upon the people’s perception of the social ill. No doubt there is lots of violence in our society. Sexual violence is considered especially onerous, yet only rarely does the sexualized attack result in death. The dead however cannot make themselves heard afterwards A fact not lost on victims of sexualized violence and their advocates who actively seek public and private affirmations of their stance. The inevitably resort to the notion that all ” sex offenders ” can not have learned from their criminal deeds and the people’s responses to them. This notion ignores the fact that a human learns freely m those experiences. All criminals are treated to the criminal justice process. The processes are impactful, yet the purveyors of permanent victim’s stance consistently claim more is needed necessarily. It felt great to build a publicly available and accessible database, based upon the distortion in presumptive pathology cast upon completely different kinds of behavior. The registration system is full of folks never actually convicted of personal attack. Under WI statues SEC301.01 PURPOSE: describes the people’s as intent behind the state’s Department of Corrections,”…. To prevent attack and the causes thereof…” The WI regime also lists persons never convicted of a sexual offense, though abduction often has the sexual component, while others do not. These facts identify some other motivations than public safety behind the intent of such laws. Surely a 95 percent non recidivism rate is an improvement from past statistics which claimed a much higher rate, but this is a result of mission creep, and not a statistical proof the registration regimen works by prevention through knowledge or info available to the people. As registration violations rise beyond the actual recidivism the underlying intent of more incarceration is amplified.
    The necessity of registration was based on certain predilections that cannot reasonably be associated broadly across vastly differing crimes, and yet the people permit it for the sake of the database. Feel good laws are a reflection of the people’s desire to feel good about themselves and their environment. Certain product purveyors take advantage of this fact. Pharmaceutical opiates are good analogy to the sex offender registration system. Each a very popular invention with highly addictive uses and destructive collateral consequences which then results further need of political and government driven action.

    1. Maestro

      Referring to a sexual offense as “violent” is also part of the problem. Not all sex offenses are violent.
      Teenagers having romantic affairs with older people has been a thing for every generation. We even have movies glorifying it. Elvis was 24 to Priscilla’s 14. Was that “violent”? And to the Elvis apologists who like to defend him saying “bUt He DiDn’T HaVe SeX uNtiL hE mArTiEd hEr”, I have this to ask; Would YOU allow your 14 yr old daughter to date a 24 yr old man EVEN IF THEY ARENT HAVING SEX?

      It would be interesting to know what’s happening in the lives of the teenagers who “sexted” each other. How are their lives on the registry? Since teens have been forced to register publicly once they turn 18 and most states require at least 10 yrs of that, let’s hear about them. Are *they* being called “PaEdOpHiLeS”? Since society likes to equate sex offense with paedophilia. Or how about that adult couple that was caught doing the nasty on the beach? That made headlines. They’re both required to register. How’s that going for them?
      We need to hear more about those types of issues and not the stereotypical “Law & Order: SVU” issues we always hear about and talk about.

  2. Bob P.

    What will it take for society and the general public to shed the false perception that people who once committed a sexual offense are the worst of the worst and need to be on a registry, most for the entirety of their lives? If the SCOTUS were to finally proclaim that the registry IS INDEED PUNISHMENT would that make any difference in how local laws are promulgated? Why can’t our lawmakers, law enforcement officials, local, state and federal authorities see and recognize the empirical data that clearly shows the registry is a FAILURE and is a waste of resources that could be used elsewhere? How do we educate the public to this fact?

  3. Emma Greer

    The Lawmakers needs a better understanding about these people who are on the Registry. It is harming their children as well as them. Some are Forced to be Homeless. This is not a safety measure. The Registry needs to be abolished. Period!

    1. WC_TN

      They know. They just feed into the torches and pitchfork mentality because it gets them the votes. That’s all they care about.

  4. WC_TN

    Great article. I would say in 100% of the cases of hostile attitudes, it’s a case of “I don’t care! Child molesters don’t have any rights in my book.” It’s an attitude born of animosity and hate; not a lack of factual information. You can put facts right under people’s noses and if they don’t want to acknowledge them, they will not be forced.

    1. Sandy

      I agree with what you say when it comes to individuals. Even when confronted with facts, most people disregard those that contradict their deeply held beliefs.

      I do believe though, that with the volume and prestige of factual information growing each year saying that the registry system is a failure, that the point will come when the legislators that make up legislatures will have to pay attention or else be seen and perceived as fools.

  5. Perry P.

    Sandy; normally I wouldn’t presume so debate you on anything you say, because you’re Spot On. However, here I must differ in one thing you’ve said: Legislators that make up Today’s State and even federal Legislatures, do not care about being seen as fools at all. They know as long as they get The Votes they need to either stay in Office or Get Into Office, they’ll readily agree and go along with whatever their Constituents say, even when many of them actually KNOW The Truth about Perceived Re-Offense Rates. Let’s be honest about something shall we? The Registry has become a great way to have Federal Money generated into each State, because the keep a Registry up and running. They do not, and never will care about the damage done to children of Registrants either Incarcerated or Released on Parole/Probation. They know many of-if not nearly all of-these same kids get Bullied and many go so far as to commit Suicide BECAUSE of such Bullying. Yet There’s nothing said about that. We cry day and night about Gun Violence taking the lives of Children, yet nothing’s ever said when it comes to kids hurting or killing themselves because a Parent or Close Relative is on The Registry. So Obviously, The Legislators Do Not Care about them at all. ‘Collateral Damage Politics’ must be their Mantra, as long as it keeps them in Office!
    Nuff Said.

  6. Grace Roberts

    I could not agree more and I am grateful to you and the other staff of this amazing organization! Keep fighting the good fight!