Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Recidivism and Registration

Everyone knows that all persons convicted of sex offenses are unstoppable monsters who give thought to nothing other than their next victim.  Well, not everyone- a recent study found that only 98% of respondents believe that most sex offenders will reoffend after conviction.  But the entrenched public perception that sex offenders pose a continuing danger to the community leads to overwhelming support for registration laws, support that the above study notes reaches above 90%.

Recent research suggests that the cure is much worse than the disease.  In a research paper funded by the Department of Justice (though not published, the text is careful to note) entitled Sex Offenders: Recidivism and Collateral Consequences, the authors examine the results of a pair of studies conducted in New Jersey. These studies examine the recidivism rates of sex offenders released before and after New Jersey passed a sex offender registration statute, and attempt to determine the characteristics of sex offenders who did recidivate.

These studies demonstrate that the existence of a registration scheme did not lead to lower recidivism rates. The authors conclude that "highly important for policy, SORN cohort status (e.g., being a sex offender released since the enactment of SORN) did not significantly predict sex or general recidivism."  What did predict recidivism rates was an unusual series of offender characteristics which indicated a high risk of reoffense. The factors that distinguish these high-risk offenders include: (1) a drug problem, (2) a rape conviction, (3) a previous victim who was a stranger, and (4) a prior arrest for a non-sex offense.

But the problem is not simply that the registration scheme in New Jersey is ineffectual- it actually makes things worse.  Registration and community notification requirements make offenders less likely to live with friends and more likely to have to relocate.  The result is that sex offenders become alienated from the protection of friends and their community support system.  As the paper concludes,

"In the end, the results from Study #1 and Study #2 add to the growing body of literature
questioning the universal application of registration and notification procedures  Specifically, these findings suggest that SORN is not likely an effective deterrent for sex offender recidivism (which by itself is not a highly likely occurrence) and may produce an environment with specific collateral consequences that inhibit
reintegration efforts post-prison release for sex offenders."

These studies both demonstrate that most sex offenders have vanishingly low recidivism rates, and show that punitive levels of supervision are criminogenic.  While obviously relevant at the policy level, this study also badly undermines the government's arguments about application of the 3553(a) factors in a federal SORNA prosecution.  If offenders who were not required to register prior to passage of the statute recidivated at the same rate as offenders required to register, what exactly is the point?

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