Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

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. The show was a reminder that fact-based discussions can keep considerations of sex crime policy rooted in reality and not let them drift into a twilight zone dominated by monsters and bogeymen.

The discussion stayed on track in large measure because among the guests was David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Finkelhor has spent almost forty years studying child sexual abuse and writing about what works in keeping kids safe.

One listener called in with a great question—if residency restrictions don’t work, what does? Finkelhor laid out a three-pronged approach that’s worth repeating here:

Prevention education: Good prevention education for young people and parents, and the staff of schools and child and youth service organizations. Better prevention, Finkelhor said, would keep kids from getting victimized in the first place. Another guest–the head of the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire, which treats rape and domestic violence victims—said she wishes her organization could do more prevention education. But they rarely get the funding to do that important work.

Good crime-solving tools: Strong investigative resources for law enforcement so that when cases come to light, the right people are arrested and taken out of the community.

Strong management programs: Once offenders are released, intensively supervised sex offender management programs that provide accurate risk assessments. Actuarial assessments give probation and parole officers individual rather than one-size-fits-all offender management strategies, Finkelhor said. Effective strategies ensure both that someone is keeping an eye on those offenders who require monitoring and that they can be re-integrated into the community in ways that keep them from descending into old patterns of behavior.

Residency restrictions and sex offender residency restrictions may be the first tool communities reach for in figuring out how to prevent sex crimes. But a comprehensive, three-headed approach, said Finkelhor, would protect many more children than would letting ever-more money float away into the ether by continuing to spend on policies that haven’t been shown to work—like residency restrictions and offender registries.

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