Polly Klass. Jacob Wetterling. Megan Kanka. Adam Walsh.
At one time, each was simply the name of someone's child. Now, these names are known for laws prompted by their abductions, presumed sexual assaults and deaths.
During the past two decades, rare but horrifying crimes against children have led to major changes in how the United States manages convicted sex offenders. As public safety dollars are stretched, it's a good time to explore which policies are most effective in preventing crimes.
Federal law requires released sex offenders to disclose their addresses in publicly accessible databases, and more information will be required as states implement the Adam Walsh Act. The number of released sex offenders under community supervision has grown more than 260 percent since 1997: A dozen years ago, 230,000 convicted sex offenders were being supervised nationwide, but today the federal gateway to state registries includes more than 600,000 names. States may require released offenders to avoid parks, pools and schools; remain in custody after they've completed court sentences; stay off social networking sites; take testosterone-lowering drugs; and submit to lifelong GPS tracking.
In Illinois and elsewhere, convicted offenders are not permitted to distribute Halloween candy. Released offenders in Delaware, Kansas and other states have distinctive drivers' licenses identifying them as convicted sex criminals.(The National Conference of State Legislatures details state statutes here.)
When it comes to measuring impact -- reducing the number of sex offenses against children -- how are governments evaluating what works? That issue is becoming especially important as legislatures look for “evidence-based” policies that are supposed to reflect research.
“States are really taking a look at issues related to efficiency in the justice industry,” said Thomas MacLellan, program director for the justice and public safety program of the National Governors Association. His 2008 brief on state sex offender management policies details several challenges facing states. “People try to do the right things, but states don’t always have the capacity to look at all the research,” he said. “A lot of decisions will be made on consensus.”
Roxanne Lieb, who has researched criminal justice policies for Washington state since 1991, agrees. “What proportion of policies are based on evidence? It’d be far less than 1 percent,” she said. There is simply not enough rigorous research available “compared to the number of policies that need to be set.”
If a policy’s backers say it was informed by research, Lieb would like reporters to examine the study’s quality. Find out if existing laws are having their intended effects. And ask what happens when convicted offenders don’t follow the law. Non-compliance is a hidden expense of any policy, she said, and could add 20 percent to 40 percent to its projected cost.
Given tight budgets, governments face a host of tough choices around public safety measures, Lieb said. "Will they cut supervision? That’s not the expensive end of the bargain. Cut sentences? That’s frightening to people. Politicians are terrified to grapple with this.”
Noting that policies typically focus on managing offenders who’ve already been caught, child sexual abuse (CSA) prevention experts would like reporters to ask something more: What’s being done to educate the public and stop abuse before it occurs? Are today's policies effective deterrents to someone who is tempted to sexually abuse a child?
The public takes too much comfort in being able to look up names in sex offender registries to identify dangerous strangers, said CSA prevention educator and author Carla Van Dam. “Father (John) Geoghan wasn’t on a registry,” she said, referring to the Boston priest and convicted pedophile believed to have assaulted more than 80 children over several decades. Van Dam believes public safety education is necessary to help adults identify suspicious behavior and make it harder for someone to molest a child.
Nancy Sabin, executive director of the foundation named for Jacob Wetterling, who disappeared at age 11 and was never found, raised similar concerns when interviewed for the Journalism Center’s Children’s Beat magazine in 2006. Only about 10 percent of sex crimes result in someone being charged and convicted, she said, and nearly all children know their offender, who is never identified, reported to police or charged. (See more on victimization trends and the limited treatment options for people troubled by their sexual attraction to children but not charged with a crime.)
“There’s no magic bullet to eliminating sexual abuse," said Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Offenders. “It takes legislation, law enforcement, treatment providers, family members and victims’ advocates.”
Christopher sees a positive trend in the creation of multidisciplinary sex offender management offices, where experts from legal, mental health and other fields collaborate to oversee and inform policies.(States including California, Colorado, Illinois and Massachusetts have these programs.) Whether a state's policies are managed by the attorney general’s office, parole board, or department of corrections, reporters should ask how other stakeholders are involved.
Prevention experts are also looking for new partners to fight sex crimes. As director of Prevent Child Abuse-Georgia, Sally Thigpen has a strong partnership with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), which maintains the state’s sex offender registry. “They’re getting calls from people who are worried about who’s NOT on the registry,” Thigpen said. “They’re suspicious about someone but say ‘What can I do?’ ” Her nonprofit created a web page for GBI to educate those callers. After the page was posted, the nonprofit’s web hits quadrupled.
Such collaboration is key, Thigpen believes, especially since prevention efforts have lost significant federal funding since 9/11. “Prevention’s hard to fund because you can’t prove that you’ve prevented a child from being abused,” she said. “If people understood child sexual abuse more, it wouldn’t be such a struggle.”