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Laws based more on myth than fact

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Researchers say sex offenders are far more likely to abuse friends and relatives than they are to attack strangers, yet most sex offender laws are designed to protect against a stranger abduction.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Like a lot of sex offender laws, this one started with a phone call from an angry mom. 

"She asked me if I was aware that a bona fide sexual predator, with a history of abusing 6-year-old little girls, was living in an apartment overlooking a grade school playground," says Iowa State Sen. Jerry Behn.  

Behn quickly went to work on a law to ban sex offenders from living near schools, parks or daycare centers. 

Sen. Jerry Behn
Iowa State Sen. Jerry Behn says lawmakers who vote against sex offender legislation can expect to be called soft on crime.
Photo courtesy of Sen. Behn

He admits he didn't do much research to find out if those restrictions are effective. 

"We all just, frankly, took it for granted that it would have some benefit, because of the number of states that had it," says Behn. "We just felt like if it was good enough for other states and it was working, and we took it for granted it was working, we should do it here."

So sex offenders were banned from living within 2,000 feet of schools, parks and daycare centers in Iowa. The law was challenged in court, and its constitutionality was upheld. 

RESTRICTIONS BASED ON MYTH

Iowa police and prosecutors soon began to see problems with the new law. Hundreds of sex offenders stopped registering with police. No one knows where they live. Some moved to neighboring states, like Minnesota. Some offenders slept in their cars or at public rest areas.

Corwin Ritchie says it's a law based on the myth that all sex offenders prey on random children.  In reality, most sex crimes against kids are committed by a friend or family member. 

Ritchie heads the Iowa County Prosecutors Association. It's his job to push for tough crime laws, but he says restricting where sex offenders live is a good example of bad public policy. 

"It's ineffective, it wastes resources and has unintended consequences that may well increase the chances an offender will re-offend due to the instability, the going underground, surrounding themselves with other offenders," says Ritchie.

Iowa prosecutors and sheriffs lobbied hard to have the residency restriction law repealed. They failed. 

POLITICS KEEPS BAD LAW ON THE BOOKS

Sen. Behn says he knows the law has driven some sex offenders underground, and he says the law probably needs to be changed.    But he says he and most lawmakers can't vote for any law that appears to give sex offenders a break, for fear of giving political opponents ammunition. 

"Everybody is concerned about the postcard going into their neighborhood that says, 'Your state representative or state senator is soft on sexual predators, and they had a chance to vote for this bill and they didn't do it,' or 'They had a chance to be tougher and they didn't do it,'" explains Behn. 

That's why a law many people say doesn't work stays on the books in Iowa. 

"The sex criminal has replaced the kidnapper as a threat to the peace of mind of the parents of America. The time has come to call a halt."

Prosecutor Corwin Ritchie says he argued lawmakers should repeal a law that doesn't make kids safer, and replace it with a more targeted law that would keep sex offenders off school property.  But he says legislators kept coming back to one question: Is it tough on sex offenders? 

"What does that mean? Does that mean they accept public policy that simply causes hardship for sex offenders and law enforcement, without any semblance of protecting kids?" asks Ritchie. "Or does being tough on sex offenders mean they want smart public policy that improves child safety. That's really the crux of where we are at the moment with legislators."

Despite the experience in Iowa, at least 21 states continue to restrict where sex offenders can live. 

Studies in several states, including Minnesota, found no connection between where a sex offender lives and where they commit crimes. 

Despite that research, a bill was introduced again this year at the Minnesota Legislature to limit where sex offenders can live. It didn't become law, but similar restrictions are in place in several Minnesota cities.

Nancy Sabin heads the Minnesota-based Jacob Wetterling Foundation, and one of her jobs is to work to pass laws that will protect children. She says legislation that promises a quick fix for a complex problem is often popular with lawmakers. 

"I call it the 'Me, too' law. One state does it. It logically sounds good, but it's a waste of resources," say Sabin. "My bottom line is, I want to know if it's going to reduce crime. If it's not, I don't want to put my energy in it.  Please, let's use research-based, proven tools that will reduce sexual harm."

GPS MONITORING -- HOW EXTENSIVE SHOULD IT BE?

GPS monitoring is one of the tools experts say has potential, but is too often seen as a quick fix. Strapped to the offender's ankle, the monitor uses satellite and cell phone technology to track the offender's every move. 

Sherry Prochnow clicks through a series of commands on her laptop computer in her Fargo office, where she works as a parole officer for sex offenders. 

On her computer screen is a map of Fargo. A series of dots mark the recent path of a sex offender who wears a GPS monitor. 

GPS monitor
GPS monitoring equipment.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"He's walking. I can tell he's walking because that's not a road there. I know he went to southeast Human Service Center for an appointment. I can tell by the date stamp how long he was at that appointment," says Prochnow.

Sherry Prochnow typically has a caseload of about 40 offenders. Only two or three are on GPS monitoring.  And that's how Prochnow likes it. 

"The GPS is kind of a big brother for us,  essentially, but you know if they're doing what they're supposed to be doing and they're complying, you can't let them wear this forever," says Prochnow. "We have to give them a chance to prove they are going to make that change, better their life and lessen their risk in the community."

Research indicates GPS monitoring is effective when it's used on high-risk sex offenders. But many lawmakers want GPS monitors on all sex offenders. 

Minnesota State Sen. Bill Ingebretson sponsored legislation this year to expand GPS monitoring in Minnesota. 

"We all don't have to look very far and turn on the TV every night, and there's a report of some kind of heinous crime done by some repeat offender," says Ingebretson. "We need to be diligent in protecting our kids, and I thought this is one way to do that."

GPS Monitor
Parole agents track a parolee's movement on a computer screen.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Ingebretson is a retired sheriff from Alexandria, who says as a state senator, he has an opportunity to improve safety for children. 

"There wasn't just a whole lot of research on it. I did talk with a legislator who had a bill last year," says Ingebretson, who says he'll keep trying to pass expanded GPS monitoring legislation. 

"It's tough. It can be a very excruciating dialogue or it can be as simple as, 'We're just going to to it. We don't care,'" says Ingebretson. "That's how things happen down there. I'd sooner err on the safety of kids."

Some experts say lawmakers see GPS monitoring as a quick fix for a complex problem.  Research shows GPS monitoring is expensive, time-consuming and effective only on a small percentage of sex offenders.

Some lawmakers argue even if the laws they pass aren't perfect, they're doing something to improve public safety. 

Jill Levenson says that's flawed public policy. Levenson is a Florida criminologist who specializes in studying sex offender laws. She says laws written in the aftermath of a brutal, high-profile crime, are forged by emotion.

One response to sex offenders that's based in science is civil commitment. Civil commitment is designed to identify the most dangerous sex offenders, and send them to a treatment hospital after they serve their time in prison. 

SEX OFFENDER PROGRAM HEAD: "I CAN'T DO THIS ANYMORE"

The Minnesota civil commitment program is considered a model for other states. But the man who designed the program says it's become irrelevant because of politics. 

Michael Farnsworth says high-risk sex offenders are often very difficult to rehabilitate. But he says the Minnesota civil commitment program used a medical model based on science, to give offenders a chance to prove they can change. 

Michael Farnsworth
Dr. Michael Farnsworth directed the Minnesota civil commitment program for sex offenders. He says he quit when politics made his job untenable.
Photo provided

Farnsworth left his job as head of the sex offender program in 2003, when the model program was caught in the middle of election-year politics.

"The attorney general at the time was, 'I'm going to be tough on crime, the governor is soft on crime and soft on sex offenders.'  The governor was declaring he was not going to allow any sex offenders out on his watch," Farnsworth recalls. 

"The message patients in the program got was, 'It doesn't matter how hard you work or whether you might recover, you're not getting out.' So if you want to undermine a program, that's the best way to do it," says Farnsworth. "Get the chief executive officer of your state to tell them that no matter how hard they work, they'll never get out. At that point I said, 'I can't do this work anymore.'"

Farnsworth says too often sex offender management is left to what he calls the hysterics and politics of the moment. He says the debate needs to move to another level. 

"We haven't come to that intellectually honest place about what we really want to do with the group," Farnsworth says. "If you wanted to look at your best bang for the dollar you'd simply lock anyone up who's a sex offender and not pretend that you're providing treatment. You'd save a lot of money."

St Peter Regional Treatment Center
The St. Peter Regional Treatment Center, one of Minnesota's facilities for treating sex offenders.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

"I think it's more politically palatable to say, 'We are trying to provide treatment,' than to say, 'We just want to lock people up forever,'" says Farnsworth. "But the net effect, given the climate we live in, is that we end up locking them up forever, but doing so at the high cost of treatment." 

Farnsworth says that decision has consequences. He says the state spends millions on a program politicians don't trust, to treat sex offenders who will never be released. 

Farnsworth wonders, would that money be better spent on programs to treat the troubled kids who grow up to be sex offenders?

A CALL FOR MORE THOUGHTFUL POLICY

Jill Levenson says lawmakers often don't analyze the consequences of their policy decisions, especially when it comes to sex offender laws.   Levenson is a Florida college professor who specializes in studying sex offender laws. 

"Many policies tend to be passed after a high-profile, heinous crime. There is a certain amount of desperation or panic, and we grasp at straws to do something that looks like it will solve the problem," says Levenson.  "Unfortunately, broad policies that are based on unusual events probably are not going to be very effective in attacking the problem in general."

Levenson contends those laws have done little to reduce sex crimes in the past 10 to 15 years. She argues it's time to set aside emotion and focus on effective measures.

"The idea behind research-based policy is to take what we know, and use that information to inform our policies and treatments and interventions, so we're most likely to be able to create the largest effect we can," Levenson says. "To do otherwise is not only inefficient in terms of resources, it's unethical because what it provides is a false sense of security to the public."

Levenson says there are no laws that can ensure there will never be another violent, horrific sex crime.  But she says acting on emotion rather than science wastes money that could improve public safety if it were targeted more effectively.