Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

Blog Updates
Tuesday, 2nd Sep, 2014

New here? Start with this.

Saturday, 17th Sep, 2016

PowerPoint Slides from My Presentation “Five Arguments for Sex Offender Registries–and Why They’re Wrong”

Here’s a link to the slides from my September 18 presentation at the 2016 Reform Sex Offender Laws conference. (Clicking the link downloads the presentation to your computer, which makes the links in the slides clickable.)

Wednesday, 3rd Aug, 2016

An Important Correction on the Last Post

As new information comes in I’m going to update my numbers as needed. In my last post, I wrote this: (more…)

Sunday, 31st Jul, 2016

Does Checking the Sex Registry Keep Your Child Safe?

The blog We Survive Abuse was launched to let sexual abuse survivors share ideas, tools, and resources. In June, the organizer ran a post called “How to Get Your Children Summer Ready to Avoid Sex Offenders.”

The key idea: you can protect your kids from abuse this summer by checking the sex registry to keep them away from friends, relatives, coaches, camp counselors, and so forth with a sexual offense on their record.    (more…)

Sunday, 17th Jul, 2016

How Sex Registries Undermine Sound Sentencing

A lot of ink has been spilled on the relatively little jail time that Brock Turner was given in the Stanford rape case. Some also has focused on the fact that Turner’s sentence could hardly be considered light given that he’ll spend the rest of his life on a sex registry. He’s likely in for a future in which it’s hard for him to get a job, find a place to live, or make friends.

But what’s been ignored so far is that Turner’s placement on the registry very likely reduced the amount of jail time he was sentenced to. (more…)

Wednesday, 15th Jun, 2016

For Iranian Refugees, from Land of the Free to Endless Punishment (Rena’s Story)

For families with a member on a state sex offender registry, life in the U.S. resembles that under a despotic regime. That’s no exaggeration—“Rena” and her family, who fled Iran in the 1970s because they were part of a persecuted religious minority, have found it out firsthand. (more…)

Sunday, 5th Jun, 2016

Research in Brief: The Famous (and Usually Misquoted) Abel Study

In followup to last week’s post, I wanted to explore a much-misused study in the debate over sex-crime laws. It’s the 1987 Abel study, “Self-Reported Sex Crimes of Nonincarcerated Paraphiliacs.” (You should be able to download it for free here.)

This 30-year-old study is a key source for many of those who argue in favor of sex offender registries and related laws. (more…)

Sunday, 22nd May, 2016

Research in Brief: “Bad Data–How Government Agencies Distort Statistics on Sex-Crime Recidivism”

The number of brilliant and energetic researchers doing ground-breaking work on sex crime and punishment just keeps growing. Some of these experts seem to write at the speed that the rest of us read. To help us keep up, this week I’m launching the first of a periodic series of research briefs, each giving the key takeaways of a recent study.

Today it’s Alissa Ackerman and Marshall Burns’ new article Bad Data–How Government Agencies Distort Statistics on Sex-Crime Recidivism in the spring 2016 Justice Policy Journal. (more…)

Sunday, 8th May, 2016

Why We’re Not So Smart on Ex-Offenders, Sex Registries, and Much Else

At his blog You Are Not So Smart—and in his book of the same title—journalist David McRaney focuses on why humans are so “unaware of how unaware we are.” He focuses on the science of our own erroneous biases in everyday life. For example, ever said to yourself or someone, “That’s just what I thought was going to happen”? The likelihood is you didn’t—it’s just Hindsight Bias at work. Anyway, McRaney is a fun read and I recommend his work.

The research he reports on how we view people shows how powerfully we affect those around us. His entertaining chapters on self-fulfilling prophecies and “representativeness heuristics” (the prejudices that cause us to make quick decisions about people) have immediate application to how we treat former offenders. (more…)

Wednesday, 4th May, 2016

How One Teen’s Placement on the Registry Lost His Mom Their Apartment and Her Job

While it lasted, the affordable housing complex that “Tracey” and her son lived in was a small slice of nirvana. Located in a wealthy city in California, most of the families who lived there were friends. They had dinners together, met on the sidewalk to chat, watched each other’s kids.

That last one was especially important to Tracey. In the late nineties, she was a single mom. She worked in a nearby city while going to night school. When she was away at night classes, she’d leave her son “Lee” with other parents. Money was tight, and she supplemented her income by working a second job as the part-time assistant manager for the apartment complex.

The kids all got along too. Lee was 15 and good friends with a neighbor’s set of 15-year-old twins.

The trouble started when Lee and the twins were hanging out one afternoon alone with a neighbor’s 7-year-old. (more…)

Sunday, 24th Apr, 2016

The Limits of Righteous Rage

It’s said you shouldn’t grocery-shop when you’re hungry because you’ll end up smashing your food budget. One lesson of the new documentary “Untouchable”—the first about the many impacts of U.S. sex crime laws–may be that you shouldn’t pass laws when you’re feeling vengeful.

“Untouchable” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week. If you watched it expecting clear answers, you may have been disappointed—it offers no policy prescriptions nor tells viewers what to think.

And the stars of the show are Ron and Lauren Book—he a bulldozer of a Florida lobbyist, she his daughter who now is running for state Senate.

More precisely, the show’s star is Ron Book’s white-hot, and understandable, fury. (more…)

Sunday, 17th Apr, 2016

State Sex Crime Laws Will Cost This Family a Million Dollars

In 2007 “Bryan,” a 37-year-old father and husband, was accused by a 14-year-old niece of inappropriately touching her. After a trial that pitted her word against his, he was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 10 years probation—and life on his state’s sex offender registry.*

Bryan’s wife “Lela” and daughter “Molly” feel certain that he’s innocent. Four of the niece’s own friends testified against her on the stand. After the sentencing, some jury members in the case wrote letters to the judge and the district attorney telling them they thought they’d made a mistake–they’d felt pressure not to reach a “not guilty” verdict even though they weren’t sure from the trial testimony what had actually happened. (more…)

Sunday, 10th Apr, 2016

This Editorial Board’s Key Argument Is a Logical Fallacy

The media landscape on sex offender registries is undergoing a tectonic shift. Reporters are far more likely than in the past to acknowledge in their stories the lack of evidence that registries work. A rare exception happened late last month when The Daily News of Longview, Washington, editorialized in favor of putting those who have served time for sex crimes on public lists. (more…)

Sunday, 3rd Apr, 2016

Sex Registries Are Stealing Money from Prevention and Victims Services

If you haven’t seen one recently, you soon will—a local media story about a registrant who lives within a mile of a school. The reporter interviews neighbors who say they want tougher registry and residency laws. The reporter conveys the impression that through their hard-hitting story, they’re speaking on behalf of victims everywhere. (more…)

Saturday, 26th Mar, 2016

What “Secondary Registration” Looks Like in Real Life

It’s not every day you hear someone say they’re ecstatic to have been diagnosed with having a brain cyst.

Then again, until the mid-nineties it would have been hard to imagine that a system of public sex registries could exist outside a Kafka novel. (more…)

Saturday, 12th Mar, 2016

Newsflash: Nuanced Thinking Would Help Fix our Sexual Violence Problem

Maisha’s Z. Johnson’s post at everydayfeminism.com is a great read for both those who want to stop sexual abuse and those trying to end our 20-year experiment with heaping ever more exacting public humiliations on those who have committed sex crimes, with its attendant hydra of consequences. (more…)

Saturday, 5th Mar, 2016

“The Registry Laws Aren’t Protecting My Kids” (Phyllis’ Story)

When Phyllis married Greg in 2012, it could have opened up new vistas. Most times, marriages widen the circle, bringing together families and friends from each side. In Phyllis and Greg’s case, their wedding did the opposite, winnowing their network till it excludes nearly everyone except them. (more…)

Sunday, 28th Feb, 2016

The New Science of Addiction Shows Reducing Sexual Abuse Requires a 180-Degree Turn From What We’re Doing

A recent TED talk by journalist and author Johann Hari offers an overview of the latest research on the science of addiction–and some devastating implications for how we handle those who have committed sex crimes involving children.  (more…)

Friday, 26th Feb, 2016

“I Will Do What I Have to for Those Kids” (Hazel and Rick’s story)

Hazel and Rick and their two children have had a target painted on their backs since Rick went on Illinois’ sex registry in 2008. (more…)

Sunday, 31st Jan, 2016

A War on Sex Crimes in an Unforgiving Land

Last year in a place where authorities have long tried to stop prostitution, police set up a sting operation targeting sex workers. They had officers pose as johns, who lured sex workers to meet them for dates. When one of them, 22-year-old Aaliyah, showed up for one of those dates, she was arrested.

It was about to get far worse for her. (more…)

Wednesday, 20th Jan, 2016

How the Sex Offender Registry Increases the Risk of Reoffense—a View from Inside the Criminal Justice System (“Dolley’s” Story)

If you were going to pick the person least likely to find her family swept up in the scourge of public sex offender registries, you couldn’t do better than “Dolley.” She’s worked for almost twenty years inside the criminal justice system, particularly with ex-prisoners who have served their time. (more…)

Tuesday, 24th Nov, 2015

A Sexual Assault Victim Explains Life on the Registry (Bonnie and Russell’s Story)

Bonnie G. knows now serious sexual assault is—she was date-raped by an acquaintance at age 21. (more…)

Saturday, 7th Nov, 2015

“True Love” Meets the Rules (Felicia and Jeff’s Story)

Felicia and Jeff, both age 35, have been married just since 2010. But they’ve known each other for 22 years, so they watched each other grow up.

That explains a lot about why they’ve held fast to each other in a system that keeps trying to pry them apart. (more…)

Saturday, 31st Oct, 2015

Getting Beyond Our Obsession With Villains

On July 1, American sport hunter Walter Palmer flew into Harare Airport in Zimbabwe to meet veteran safari guide Theo Bronkhorst. Palmer had paid Bronkhorst at least $50,000 for one task—help him hunt and kill a prize lion. The next day, using an elephant carcass as bait, they lured a lion out of the Hwange National Park, and Palmer got near enough to shoot him with an arrow. The lion fled, the hunters tracked him the next day, and Palmer killed him with a second arrow.

That, of course, turned out to be Cecil the Lion, famous to visitors for his distinctive black-fringed mane.

When the word spread of what Palmer had done, people camped outside his Minnesota dentists office. Death threats poured in. The national organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a statement calling for Palmer to be executed.

Americans tend to personalize our problems. (more…)

Monday, 12th Oct, 2015

The Powerful Case Against Sex Offender Residency Bans

By Sandy Rozek, Reform Sex Offender Laws

Contrary to the evidence about what works, new jurisdictions are passing sex offender residency restrictions and “child-safe zones.” (more…)

Thursday, 24th Sep, 2015

How Second Chances Help—in Business and in Sex Crime Policy

A September 10 National Public Radio story on chapter 11 bankruptcy made this startling claim: “The Great Recession taught us one thing. Bankruptcy may be an indicator of failure, but it can also be one of our economy’s secret weapons.”

The segment profiled Queen City Appliances of Charlotte, North Carolina. After launching in the 1950s, the company expanded from eight to seventeen stores. Then the Great Recession hit in 2008, and the owners declared bankruptcy. The list of companies that Queen City owed money to was 133 pages long in court documents—millions of dollars. (more…)

Wednesday, 12th Aug, 2015

Suffocating

by Dolley Madison

I stepped outside after another week’s end. It was Friday afternoon, and I took my coffee to sit at one of my favorite spots–the back porch. The air was warm, humid, and still, without even a hint of a refreshing breeze.

And I was feeling suffocated–but not because of the weather. (more…)

Friday, 7th Aug, 2015

Pitchfork Populism Meets the Family (Ann’s Story)

Frank is a 35-year-old with a developmental disability who was arrested in 2007 for downloading child pornography. Fortunately, he has what some politicians say is the answer to all manner of social ills–a tight, committed family who have cared for him his whole life.*

(more…)

Thursday, 16th Jul, 2015

Not-So-Sweet-Home Alabama

The Constitution’s ex post facto clause prohibits passing a law that retroactively increases the punishment for a criminal act that an offender committed before the law was passed. But in an ingenious 2003 Supreme Court ruling, a 6-3 conservative majority held that retroactive placement on a state sex offender registry–being put on a registry that was created after an offender committed his crime–doesn’t violate ex post facto because registration isn’t punishment.

Daily life for those on state sex offender registries makes that claim hard to square with reality. Nowhere is that more true than in Alabama–registrants in that state are subject to a regime every bit as grinding as that of Cold-War Soviet Russia. (more…)

Thursday, 2nd Jul, 2015

Reasonable People—Your Opinions Needed

Cruel and unusual punishment has no exact definition in law—a number of state constitutions describe it as punishment that’s so disproportionate to the crime committed that it shocks the conscience of a reasonable person.

Our notions of it have changed over time and vary across cultures. In essence, it’s something like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of hard-core pornography–he couldn’t define it, he said, but “I know it when I see it.”

A court case in Ohio offers a test of whether we think putting those convicted of any sex crime on a public sex offender registry is cruel and unusual. (more…)

Monday, 25th May, 2015

Residency Restrictions Don’t Work—So What Does?

In March, New Hampshire Public Radio ran a segment about the debate over residency restrictions for those on state sex offender registries. (more…)

Tuesday, 19th May, 2015

Victims Don’t Support Sex Offender Registries Either

Scholarly research on out-of-the way topics often suffers the fate of the talented actor stuck on a Shakespearean stage in London—the attention the public pays bears no relationship to the quality of the product.

Last year’s book compilation of studies on sex crime policy Sex Offender Laws: Failed Policies, New Directions belongs in that category. Each chapter is written by a leading researcher in the field under the editorship of Richard Wright, who chairs Bridgewater State University’s Department of Criminal Justice.

The book has gotten no mention in the press. You might dismiss this as just another case of research that lacked a lapel-grabbing angle for editors. But that’s wrong: if nothing else, it deserves attention for a startling chapter that should change our assumptions about whom our harsh sex crime policies benefit. (more…)

Tuesday, 12th May, 2015

A Cure Worse Than the Disease? (Lina’s Story, Part 2)

Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle describes a New England village that ostracizes a family after a murder committed by a family member years earlier. With George’s name on the sex offender registry, Lina and the rest of the family were to get a taste of life in Jackson’s story. (more…)

Wednesday, 6th May, 2015

When Honesty Doesn’t Pay (Lina’s Story, Part 1)

As in medicine, the first law of public policy is to do no harm. The story of Lina Carl and her family suggests that maxim has been trampled in the rush to mete out ever harsher punishments to those who have committed sex crimes. (more…)

Thursday, 30th Apr, 2015

A Matter of Proportion

By Sandy Rozek

“Susie, you can’t take a teaspoon of green beans and a huge bowl of pudding. Things must be in proportion.”

“Our budget allocates three times as much for entertainment as it does for groceries; that isn’t a good proportion.”

“The punishment should fit the crime; someone who stole a dollar shouldn’t receive the same sentence as someone who stole ten million dollars; it isn’t proportionate.”

Today’s sex offender laws are in need of serious repair for many, many reasons—primarily because they do not work and cause harm, not good—but very high on the list of reasons is because they lack proportion. (more…)

Monday, 27th Apr, 2015

Good-bye Little League (Jason and Lisa’s Story, Part 3)

In 2013, San Antonio’s city council hatched a plan that would make life even harder for Jason and Lisa and other families with someone on the state sex offender registry. That fall, a city councilman with ambitions to higher office introduced an ordinance to ban those on the registry from the city’s parks. (more…)

Friday, 24th Apr, 2015

“How Long Can a 17-Year-Old Be Punished?” (Jason and Lisa’s Story, Part 2)

In May 1996, after the murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey, the U.S. Congress rushed through an amendment to the Wetterling Act. Called Megan’s Law, it required that states put their lists of those convicted of sex crimes, previously available only to police, up on the Internet.

That meant Jason Norman’s photo, name, and address would appear on Texas’ public sex offender registry. Jason couldn’t believe it—none of that was part of his 1993 plea deal. The state had changed the rules after the fact. (more…)

Monday, 6th Apr, 2015

“She’s Going to Point at You in Court, and You’re Going to Lose” (Jason and Lisa’s Story, Part 1)

What happened at a party on February 9 in 1991 lit the fuse of an explosion that hurled Jason Norman into the alternate universe from which he and his family have yet to emerge. (Jason and his wife asked that their real names not be used in this story because of fears of harassment.) (more…)

Friday, 3rd Apr, 2015

The Other Face of “Lauren’s Kids”–Interview with Vicki Henry

Lauren Book is the 30-year-old daughter of a prominent Florida lobbyist. During her teens, she suffered terrible sexual abuse at the hands of her nanny while her father was away at the state Capitol.

She turned those traumatic events into a thriving nonprofit called Lauren’s Kids, which educates the public on sexual abuse prevention through in-school curricula and awareness-raising campaigns.

But Lauren’s Kids has another face too—it’s been instrumental in passing legislation that has made Florida one of the harshest states in the nation for those on the state’s sex offender registry and their families. (more…)

Monday, 30th Mar, 2015

Monica Lewinsky: “Public Shaming as a Blood Sport Has to Stop”

Last week, alert reader Ric sent a link to Monica Lewinsky’s now-viral TED talk. She denounces the nexus between a growing culture of shaming and the rise of the Internet that have led to a mushrooming and profitable traffic in the sale of public humiliation.

It’s no accident that national and state-level politicians launched Internet-based sex offender registries just as that market was taking off in the mid- to late-nineties—they could use it to political advantage. (more…)

Monday, 23rd Mar, 2015

How Did We Get Sex Offender Registries Anyway? How the Wetterling Act Got Hijacked (Part 2 of 2)

Barbara Lee Drive in the suburb of Hamilton Township outside Trenton, New Jersey, attracts families with its flawless lawns like thick carpets, American flags, and asphalt driveways.

In 1994, Richard and Maureen Kanka lived at number 32 with their two kids.

The Kankas knew a lot of their neighbors, but they’d never met the people across the street at number 27.

That would cost them dearly. It’s where 33-year-old Jesse Timmendequas lived with two friends. (more…)

Saturday, 21st Mar, 2015

How Did We Get Sex Offender Registries Anyway? It Started With a 10-Minute Bike Ride (Part 1 of 2)

We’ll get back shortly to more stories from people whose lives have been upended by having a family member’s name, photo, and address splashed up on a public sex offender registry. But to get at what’s behind America’s sex crime policies, it helps to understand the chilling events that got them rolling. (more…)

Monday, 16th Mar, 2015

Lila’s Story, Part 3: “If You Even Look at Anyone in My Family, I’ll Kill You”

When Lila’s son Lorin joined them in South Carolina, she and her husband Steven were up against plenty of their own problems. They were taking care of Steven’s brother, who had terminal cancer and couldn’t walk—he stayed in a bed in their living room. (more…)

Friday, 13th Mar, 2015

Lila’s Story, Part 2: From Teen Romance to Life as a Registrant

Lila Folster, 63, understands that her family and Charles and Gretchen Parker share something in common. Folster, her husband Stephen, and her 28-year-old son Lorin live outside Chester, a 40-minute drive from where the Parkers were murdered.  (more…)

Monday, 9th Mar, 2015

Lila’s Story, Part 1: “I’m Not Here to Rob You—I’m Here to Kill You”

It was a hot Sunday afternoon in July 2013 on a lonely stretch of four-lane highway outside tiny Jonesville, South Carolina, when a car rolled up at Charles and Gretchen Parker’s house. People came up their driveway often—Charles Parker, 59, was a mechanic.

He was also on the sex offender registry. (more…)

Monday, 2nd Mar, 2015

Early Findings of New Study Indicate Sex Offender Policies Are Creating New Child Victims

Family members of those on sex offender registries contend that registry laws punish not just registrants but their wives, children, and sometimes parents and siblings. A new study is trying to quantify those effects. (more…)

Tuesday, 13th Jan, 2015

Lari’s Story

Life changed forever for Lari Howard, 51, on the night of December 10, 2006.

A resident of Dallas, she was away on business in Illinois when she learned that her husband had landed in jail. Then the news got worse–when she landed at Dallas Fort-Worth airport, her mother-in-law called to tell her that he’d been arrested for online solicitation of a minor. She fell to the floor in the middle of the airport, phone in hand, weeping. Strangers approached her to offer Kleenex and help. (more…)

Sunday, 21st Dec, 2014

Kat’s Story, Part 3

New to Kat’s story? Start with part 1.

Kat got over the missed birthday party. What her parents had told her seemed unreal at first, so she didn’t stay upset. Given a little time, she thought her life would go back to normal. She’d been a happy, social kid: parents and children coming and going from their apartment constantly, a birthday party every other week, play dates twice a week, running back and forth to friends’ houses. (more…)

Saturday, 20th Dec, 2014

Kat’s Story, Part 2

New to Kat’s story? Start with part 1.

Twenty-five years earlier when he was 21 and single, Phil had been convicted of a sex offense involving a child. (more…)

Friday, 7th Nov, 2014

Kat’s Story, Part 1

The family members don’t use their real names, but when they talk about the pamphlet that showed up in in mailboxes on that Thursday afternoon in February of 2007, it’s as clear as if it happened yesterday. Its arrival would cancel 8-year-old Kat Tanis’ invite to a friend’s birthday party. Later, it would change her life forever. (more…)

Friday, 31st Oct, 2014

Western Europe and Sex Offenders

When it comes to sex offenders, one defense of current laws you often hear goes something like, “well they made a bad choice and they’re going to have to pay for it, even if it seems harsh.” True enough. But we as a society have a choice in how we respond to people who have committed sex offenses. It’s not as though the only choices are putting people on public sex offender registries and setting up residency restrictions on the one hand, or putting our children at risk of sexual victimization on the other. (more…)

Friday, 24th Oct, 2014

Are the Reported Low Rates of Sex Offender Recidivism Due to the Sex Offender Registry?

One good question you may be asking: could the relatively low rates of sex offender recidivism shown in the previous post be the result of the sex offender registry itself? That is, maybe sex offender registries are doing exactly what they’re supposed to: making sex offenders think twice about committing another sex crime because they know they’re being watched. (more…)

Friday, 17th Oct, 2014

More on Recidivism Rates

In followup to the post below about the Zgoba study’s findings about recidivism among sex offenders, it might be helpful to have a more comprehensive set of data about what the studies that are out there have found. (more…)

Friday, 10th Oct, 2014

A Test of Your Views About the Sex Registry

Check out Shana Rowan’s blog I Love a Sex Offender. She’s the 27-year-old girlfriend of Geoff, a man who’s also 27. At age 13, after years as the target of physical abuse at the hands of his mother and step-father, he engaged in inappropriate touching with his 7-year-old half-sister—abuse that went on for a year. When he turned 18, he spent three years in prison. And now he’s on the sex offender registry for life. (more…)

Friday, 3rd Oct, 2014

Does Sex Offender Registration Tell Us Who’s Dangerous?

Last November, a team of sex offense researchers, led by Kristen Zgoba, director of research at the New Jersey Department of Corrections, published a study. It looked at the accuracy of the system used under federal law (called the Adam Walsh Act) to determine the risk that an offender will commit another sex crime. In brief, offenders are put into one of three tiers according to their presumed risk level: those in tier I are presumed to be at the lowest risk for committing a new crime, and tier III are the highest risk. (more…)

Friday, 26th Sep, 2014

A Little Empathy Might Help

Take a minute read some of this exchange between Marie, the wife of a man sentenced for possession of child pornography, and a commenter who tries to explain the impact of child pornography on children. (If you have time, read through some of the rest of Marie’s site too.) Her blog is dedicated to trying help people understand how her life and that of her children has been torn apart by her husband’s crime and the response of the justice system. (more…)