Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

Author Archives: warningfission

Do Failure-to-Register Violations Lead to Future Sex Crimes?

Laura Ahearn is head of Parents for Megan’s Law, based in Suffolk County, New York. Her advocacy group runs a crime victims center and a program that monitors the accuracy of the photos and addresses of county residents whose names are on the state sex offender registry.

The monitoring program is the only one of its kind in the country. In May 2013, the Suffolk County legislature handed PFML responsibility for knocking on the doors of registered offenders twice a year to make sure that they still live where the registry says they do. No other jurisdiction has farmed out its offender monitoring, a job done everywhere else by cops.

At a recent presentation in the Long Island town of Babylon, Ahearn set out to affirm for a mostly friendly crowd that her monitoring program cuts sex crimes. Continue reading

More on What Victim Advocates Say About Registries

When I have conversations with people about the usefulness of sex offender registries and related laws, it’s usually not long before questions like these come up: “What about the victims? What about what they suffered?”

Victims do deserve to see justice done and to get state-funded services and support. Offenders do need to be held accountable for their crimes. When appropriate, they need to be behind bars, often for a long time.

But it’s worth pointing out the ostensible goal of sex offender registries–no more victims. So we might listen to what some actual victim advocates say about registries. Here’s a sample. Continue reading

The Best Short Video on What’s Wrong With Our Sex-Offense Laws–and What Actually Works

If you find it challenging to explain to friends and acquaintances why our sex-offender laws have gone so terribly wrong, have them take a look at this 17-minute video by Alissa Ackerman, a University of Washington criminologist who’s authored numerous studies on sexual victimization and sex-crime policies over the last decade. Continue reading

Four Years in Prison for Driving His Son to a Ball Game

In his 2014 book, Our Kids, sociologist Robert Putnam breaks down the ways that America is failing its less-well-off children. His isn’t a liberal or conservative story–a lot of the book focuses on the terrible impact that family breakdown has in perpetuating poverty (a conservative narrative) and how widening inequality means rich and poor kids live in completely different worlds (a theme of liberals). 

Putnam also notes a point that routinely gets ignored in discussions of family stability: the link between rising rates of imprisonment since the 1970s and the increasing number of single-parent families. Mass incarceration, writes Putnam, “has certainly removed a very large number of young fathers from poor neighborhoods, and the effects of their absence, on white and nonwhite kids alike, are known to be traumatic, leaving long-lasting scars.” 

It’s even worse for kids with a father on a sex offender registry. Once a father is back home after serving time, often-senseless restrictions make being a good parent well-nigh impossible. In that light, a story not long ago in a newsletter of Reform Sex Offender Laws caught my eye. Continue reading

Another Eye-Popping Statistic

Earlier this year, I talked to the press spokesperson for a state senator who was proposing a new ban targeting those on the state’s sex offender registry. I asked her about the purpose of the legislation–why focus on this group of ex-offenders? The question seemed to catch her off guard: “Oh! Well these people reoffend at very high rates compared with others!” she replied.

It’s not just that the statement is wrong as it relates to other groups of ex-offenders–we have more than 20 years of solid data to show that recidivism rates among registrants are lower than re-offense rates for nearly every other population of ex-inmates. It’s also that thousands of offenders have recidivism rates as low as the first-time offense rate among the population at large. Continue reading

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum Weighs in on Sex Offender Registries

The celebrated University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum just dropped a new book on anger and its uses and abuses: Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. Her essential thesis is that anger, while initially useful for demolishing what doesn’t work, is ultimately a flawed tool for designing public policy or changing people.

Anger has embedded in it the idea of payback, she contends. And the payback idea represents a kind of magical thinking. It imagines that by having the perpetrator of a crime suffer, the victim or the victim’s family is helped. That’s a fallacy–there’s no evidence to suggest that backward-looking retribution repairs any of the harm done, Nussbaum says.

She does believe that prison terms are necessary, but only as a way to prevent future crime. In all of this, she draws on the work of our Greek friends Socrates, Seneca, and Aeschylus, who considered anger the province of the weak-minded. She does see a place for “transitional” anger that motivates people to lobby for future-oriented solutions that prevent the harm from happening again. That is, you might use dynamite to clear the lot, but you need bricks and mortar to build the house.

The book’s biggest surprise was the example she chose to illustrate irrational, payback-focused proposals–sex offender registries. Continue reading

There’s Now Hard Evidence that Registries and Residency Restrictions Increase Re-offense Rates

With the election of Donald Trump, reporters who follow criminal justice reform expect a harder line on issues of crime and sentencing. Trump ran as a law-and-order President who will cut crime–though long-term crime rates have fallen dramatically since the early 1990s.

On sex crime policy, if the new administration is serious, they should pay attention to new research showing that reducing sex crime rates actually might entail dismantling key policies instituted since the mid-1990s.

For years, researchers have been suggesting that residency restrictions may actually increase re-offense rates by destabilizing the lives of ex-offenders. (We already know from several studies (like this one) that residency restrictions are linked to higher rates of homelessness.) It makes sense logically–when offenders can’t get housing because large swaths of cities are off limits, they have little hope or incentive to keep themselves on track. And that might actually end up increasing re-offense rates.

But there’s been precious little actual data showing that’s true. Until now. Continue reading

Research in Brief: Many Cops Are Skeptical of Sex Offender Registries Too

Here’s one reason to read beyond the abstract when research studies are published–headlines and summaries often don’t convey nuance.

Last month, a study was published on what police think about the damaging impacts of sex offender registries. The takeaway line from the abstract was this bland conclusion: “Results indicate that, although overall [law enforcement] concern regarding collateral impacts is limited, those who are most engaged in [registry]-related duties are significantly more likely to indicate such concern, and also more likely to believe that [the registration system] was an effective public safety tool.”

Those who support registries might read that and conclude that cops don’t much care about registries’ collateral effects. They also might have focused on this sentence from the study: “Respondents consistently expressed the belief that sex offender registration and notification was effective in achieving its primary community safety goals.”

But both statements miss some key points showing just how widespread concerns about sex offender registries are among cops. Continue reading

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.    Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading


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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

“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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Loni’s Story

Life changed forever for Loni Brooks (not her real name), 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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading