Friday, July 12, 2013

Is Vermont's Sex Offender Registry Effective?

At last count, there were 1,155 Vermonters on the public section of the state's Sex Offender Registry and Notification (SORN) list.

That's the list open to the public. It allows anyone to go on line and learn whether anyone living nearby has been convicted of a sex crime, including (but not limited to) sexual crimes against children and young teenagers.

The web site provides the name, age, and description (including a picture) of each registered sex offender, whether he (it's usually a he; only 27 women are on the Registry) is considered "high risk" to re-offend, the date he was convicted, and the statute he violated. It does not give street addresses, only the town of residence. Those who want to know if the offender lives next door would have to consult their local phone book or other resource.

The Registry is required by law, both state and federal. Its goal is to minimize sexual assault against children by alerting both police and parents to the presence of potentially dangerous offenders.

Does it work?

At first glance, the evidence seems to suggest that it does. The number of reported sexual offense against minors is on the decline. In 2004, according to the Vermont Criminal Information Center (based on data from the National Archive of Criminal Justice) there were 204 forcible and 89 non-forcible sex offenses reported against victims under the age of 18. By 2010, the last year for which information is available, there were only 165 forcible and 39 non-forcible offenses reported.

But not necessarily because of the Sex Offender Registry.

Thanks to publicity surrounding such horrible crimes as the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett in Randolph June 2008 (and perhaps to the promotional zeal of some cable television personalities) public awareness and public outrage about sex crimes against children has been growing.

But the actual commission of these crimes has been shrinking.

"The rate of sexual assault, according to all federal crime data, has been declining for many years," said Andrew Harris, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, who has done extensive research into sex offender policy. "Whether it can be attributed to any particular policy – the registries, better investigation, longer sentences – we can't say."

But there does seem to be something approaching a consensus in the academic research over the question of whether the registries are effective. That consensus is that they are not.

One study reaching that conclusion was done in 2005 by the Legislative Council for the Vermont State Legislature. It found that "there is insufficient evidence to determine whether posting information about registered sex offenders on the internet is a valuable and effective public safety tool."

But, the report acknowledged, "The general assembly determined…that the majority of the public feels that the internet registry provides important information that can be used to protect families and expects such information to be a matter of public record."

That's not quite saying (because researchers working for the Legislature would not say) that politicians were pursuing a useless policy because of public pressure. But it's close.

Even Harris, who described himself as middle-of-the-road on the dispute, could only say that just because the research has "not been able to demonstrate a significant impact (of the registries) doesn't lead to conclusion that there is no impact."

But Vermont Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn and Francis (Paco) Aumand, the Director of the Division of Criminal Justice Services both argue that the Registry could protect some children in ways that no research could uncover.

By warning their children about the presence of "predatorial sex offenders," Flynn said, parents who have checked the registry could be protecting them from potential attacks.

Flynn and Aumond agree with Registry critic Allen Gilbert, the Executive Director the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont that the vast majority of sex offenses against children are committed by their relatives and acquaintances, not by what Gilbert called "a stranger in a trench coat leaping out from behind the bushes."

But Flynn noted that even the "small minority of sexual offenders (have the) potential to do great harm," and Aumand pointed out that some sexual predators become friendly with families – and thereby make themselves "acquaintances" – precisely to gain access to their vulnerable children. Forewarned about this new companion's past, he said, the parents can cut off contact with him before he can pounce.

Still, most experts in the field, including Flynn and Aumand, acknowledge that if the registries may do some good, they can also do some harm. Many of those experts conclude that the harm outweighs the good.

That's the conclusion of "Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the US," a 111-page report issued by Human Rights Watch in May.

"Of course anyone responsible for a sexual assault should be held accountable," wrote Nicole Pitman, the author of the report. "But punishment should fit both the offense and the offender, and placing children who commit sex offenses on a public registry – often for life – can cause more harm than good."

Pitman was referring in part to a problem – or at least what many consider a problem – that does not apply in Vermont: placing on the Registry a teenage boy who has consensual sex with an under-age (16 in Vermont) young woman.

However objectionable it might be, such conduct is the sign of a normal sex drive, not the abnormal passion for sex with minors that serves as one justification for sex offender registries. Vermont does not put those offenders on the Registry as long as the offender was under 18 and the victim older than 12.

But a common offense of the Vermont registrants is "lewd and lascivious conduct with (a) child." That could describe truly dangerous and abhorrent conduct. But in one case (not in Vermont) a college student, probably after drinking a few beers, urinated on the grass at the edge of his campus. Unfortunately, it was also near a house where two teen-aged girls lived. The parents pressed charges and the young man is on his state's registry.

There is no evidence that there is a similar case in Vermont. But no guarantee that there is not.

In a few cases, being listed on the Registry has proved fatal. In 2006, a self-appointed vigilante from Canada murdered two men who were on Maine's Registry (he had also checked out the Vermont list) before shooting and killing himself.

One of the murdered men had been convicted of having sex with his girl friend just a few days before she reached the age of consent.

The Vermont Registry posts a disclaimer on its web site: "Any person who uses information in this registry to injure, harass, or commit a criminal offense against any person included in the registry or any other person is subject to criminal prosecution."

"I'm not sure what good that does," said Allen Gilbert. "The law already says you're not allowed to hurt anybody."

Vermont's law differs from those of many states in other ways. It does not empower localities to limit where offenders can live. And most offenders are on the Registry for a period of time. If they do not re-offend – and most do not – they are removed from the list when the time expires.

Critics and advocates of Vermont's Registry disagree over whether its benefits outweigh its costs. Gilbert said he would prefer to replace the Registry with "a more reasonable approach" which would rely on "treatment programs that work," and a greater effort to "successfully reintegrate (offenders) back into society."

The Registry hinders that process, Gilbert said. It stigmatizes those on it, making it harder for them to find and keep a job, to be accepted by civic organizations or to be welcome by their neighbors.

But he also acknowledged that the question is complicated. And while law enforcement officials such as Flynn and Aumand think the Registry is worth its costs, they don't dispute that it has its cost, and that it can interfere with efforts to treat offenders to the point at which they no longer endanger anyone. Unlike their counterparts in some other states, Vermont's top law enforcement officials do not say they believe that people who sexually abuse children have an affliction that can never be cured.

"This is a legitimate argument that needs discussion," Flynn said, acknowledging that the Registry "limits civil liberties," and should be applied selectively, "with appropriate balance."