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.
The paper’s editorial board rested its argument heavily on this fact—sex offenses are one of the most underreported crimes. As they put it:
The very nature of sex crimes and the lack of reporting also creates flaws in the “facts” related to claims about recidivism rates. Sexual crimes are reported far less than other types of crimes. The National Research Council estimates 80 percent of sexual assaults go unreported to law enforcement. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that 68 percent of sexual assaults go unreported. The discrepancy in the numbers doesn’t change the fact that sex crimes are not reported nearly enough.
Because these numbers very greatly, even the most conservative estimate still skews the statistics so greatly that it seems nearly impossible to draw any conclusions on recidivism. How can groups claim there is low recidivism if the majority of these crimes are not even reported?
The Department of Justice reports on their website that, “due to the frequency with which sex crimes are not reported to police, the disparity between the number of sex offenses reported and those solved by arrest, and the disproportionate attrition of certain sex offenses and sex offenders within the criminal justice system, researchers widely agree that observed recidivism rates are underestimates of the true re-offense rates of sex offenders.
Let’s break this down. The Daily News doesn’t mention a meta-analysis of 20 years of research on the effectiveness of registries that appeared in the February 2012 Journal of Crime and Justice. That analysis noted that none of the six studies on the impact of sex offender registries on sex offender recidivism conducted between 1995 and 2011 found that registration lowered recidivism. In essence, what these six studies did was to compare re-offense rates for sex offenses before and after registry laws were passed. The result? None of the researchers found significant differences.
To make their case, the Daily News writers must conclude that these researchers would have seen differences if sex crimes weren’t underreported. And therein lies their problem—the writers are trapped in a vortex of their own making–a logically fallacious argument from ignorance. It goes like this: “You can’t prove that X is false. Therefore X is true.” As in: “You can’t prove that reading this blog post won’t make you a billionaire. Therefore it will.”
That is: the editors argue that their opponents can’t prove that sex registries didn’t cause recidivism to decline. Therefore we must assume that registries did cause a decline and that they protect children.
That sort of thinking, of course, is foolish. The paper has the burden of proving that sex registries caused recidivism to fall. And they can’t do that because, as they themselves imply, sex crimes can’t be studied because of the underreporting problem.
But of course it’s untrue that lack of reporting makes sex crime studies impossible. It simply means that in all sex crime reporting what we have is a sample of the total number, a sample collected using the same methods over the years. To argue against the six carefully crafted studies mentioned earlier, you have to assume that the sex crime reporting that happened after sex registries were passed was somehow less representative than the reporting that happened before they passed. If we couldn’t study sex crimes, we wouldn’t know for a certainty that the number of rapes has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s, a data point that all criminologists accept.
In short, The Daily News hasn’t come within a country mile of meeting its burden of proof on this part of its argument. I’ll take on another aspect of the debate—the claim that those who do admit to sex crimes have a large average number of victims–in a future post.