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.
An innocuous study done by the state of California this July set out to test the predictive validity of the Static-99R, one of the more widely used instruments in assessing the recidivism risk of those who have committed sex offenses. The researchers sliced and diced the population of offenders to understand which groups were highest risk.
Overall, the group’s sex-crime recidivism rates were low–less than 5 percent during the 5-year followup period. But one discovery they made was nothing short of shocking–homeless registrants on probation or parole were six times more likely to reoffend than those who weren’t homeless. “Collectively, transient status seems to be associated with higher sexual recidivism rates,” the researchers concluded.
That backs up a finding from a 2011 paper by University of Michigan law professor J.J. Prescott, who looked at sex crime data from 15 states over 10 years. He found that sex offender notification policies–the public release of information about offenders on the registry–increases the number of sex offenses by about 1.57 percent. His data also show that that the greater the number of released offenders that states actually subject to notification, the higher the relative frequency of sex offenses.
One reason? Prison sure looks good compared to being isolated, jobless, and sometimes homeless on the outside. “By making the world outside of prison more like being in prison, the threat of sending someone to prison should he commit another sex crime is rendered much less severe,” writes Prescott.
These laws exacerbate a host of recidivism risk factors, he says: they make it more difficult for ex-offenders to find employment and housing, they make everything more expensive and life less stable, and they make it harder for registered offenders to be with or build their own families. “Put another way,” he concludes, “the more difficult, lonely, and unstable our laws make a registered sex offender’s life, the more likely he is to return to crime—and the less he has to lose by committing these new crimes.”
That is, the tough-but-smart approach to preventing new sex crimes involves junking what we’ve been doing and moving to what states like Vermont have used to cut their recidivism rates: make sure ex-offenders get the support and (when appropriate) monitoring that they need to stay on track.