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The One-Way Strategy for Sex Offenders Makes Nobody Safe

October 01, 2000|Michael Dear and Django Sibley | Michael Dear is director of USC's Southern California Studies Center. Django Sibley is a graduate student at USC and an officer in the Humberside Police (U.K.)

In late August, Monrovia police took a series of unusual steps to get a high-risk sex offender out of their city. Following California law, twice-convicted child molester Aramis Dominguez Linares informed the police of his address after he moved in with his sister's family. The Monrovia Police Department subsequently petitioned the state's Department of Justice to declare Linares a "high-risk" sex offender, which allowed it toinform the general public of Linares' whereabouts.

Police handed out fliers and notified local media about Linares' crimes, physical description, address and the license-plate number of a car registered to his family. Public protests began almost immediately, escalating to such intensity that Linares finally moved out of his sister's home to another L.A. County community. But the Monrovia police were not done. They raised funds from a private donor, bought a one-way ticket and put Linares on a plane to Reno, Nev., where he previously lived.

Public knowledge of sex offenders' identities makes the work of policing sexcrimes much more difficult. Offenders who are relatively unpoliced, socially isolated and psychologically damaged through their expulsion from communities are less hindered in their search for new victims. Rejected sex offenders do not disappear; they simply move elsewhere and work harder to protect their anonymity.

The Monrovia police actions occurred through a series of statutes known nationally as Megan's Law, named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka of New Jersey, molested and killed by a neighbor in 1994. Megan's Law requires that communities have access to the identities of former sex offenders residing in their midst. In 1947, California became one of the first states to require registration of sex offenders, and the state now has one of the nation's strictest notification and registration laws.

For many people, former sex offenders are the worst neighbors in the world. But public availability of information identifying them has profound implications for communities, sex offenders and law-enforcement agencies. Community action against sex offenders can create a new class of victims.

This was dramatically demonstrated by events in Britain this summer. Following the abduction and murder of an 8-year-old girl in July, a campaign to "name and shame" pedophiles took shape, with massive public support. A national newspaper published names and photographs of 49 offenders living around the country, unleashing a wave of violent anti-pedophile protests in communities across the U.K. (In one bizarre example, a pediatrician in South Wales fell victim to vandals who thought her title meant the same thing as pedophile.)

Instead of creating safer communities, the public identification of sex offenders in Britain brought violence and fear to formerly tranquil neighborhoods. British police and probation services responded to the name-and-shame campaign by mounting an aggressive counter-campaign, highlighting the pitfalls of community-notification schemes, which, they contend, work against the protection of children. British authorities argued that identifying sexual offenders drives many of them underground and discourages them to comply with the law requiring them to register with authorities. Many ex-offenders prefer not to register and take their chances violating the notification laws, rather than face the potentially violent wrath of enraged communities.

Registration schemes in which only police authorities have access to offenders' identities and places of residence have proved a useful tool for the British police in boosting prevention and detection rates for sexual offenses. Such registers allow officers to keep surveillance on known offenders. They enable police to draw up lists of likely suspects when an offense has occurred, thus aiding apprehension. And they help authorities target treatment programs that reduce rates of recidivism. All these factors contribute positively to the safety of children, but they work only when offenders are known and can be readily located.

Those who support community notification of the identity of sex offenders often argue that it enables parents to better protect their children. But the danger posed by sex offenders is much harder to pinpoint. Many offenders are never convicted for their crimes. Much sexual abuse of children takes place within families. Many offenders meet their victims in the virtual spaces of the Internet. Even registered offenders can travel to places where they are not recognized. Thus, the safety of children cannot be ensured by local community-notification schemes. A greater danger is that the partial knowledge resulting from such schemes could lull parents into a false sense of security, increasing the likelihood of their child becoming a victim.

Living with sex offenders poses a tough challenge: how to manage the presence of potentially dangerous and despised individuals within communities. Most sex offenders will sooner or later return to society. Without treatment, recidivism rates among sex offenders can vary from 58% to 80%. That's an 80% chance that a former sex offender will commit a similar crime. With treatment, however, recidivism rates drop below 25% to as little as 10%. Treatment for sex offenders works to curtail the rates of repeat offenses.

The best approach to the threat posed by sex offenders is a multi-agency strategy involving proper treatment for the sex offender and effective monitoring by police and parole services. Vigilante action by angry neighbors is no way to keep communities safe. *

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