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photo:John Whipple

Beyond the Registry
By Rick Marshall

Keeping our communities safe from sex offenders requires getting past the hysteria to solutions that really work

‘It’s the worst thing that could happen. I hear on the news that another sex offender has been arrested, and I start thinking, ‘Please don’t be one of my guys.’ ”

Richard Scott, probation officer for Rensselaer County’s 40-plus supervised sex offenders, looks down at the small, wooden desk between us, runs a hand over his face and crosses his arms. The moment has a sense of authenticity missing from the standard, prepared statements that tend to be issued in the wake of such news reports. After pausing for a moment, Scott glances around the probation department’s closet-sized interview room and continues.

“I know that if it’s one of my cases, I’ll wonder what I didn’t do right. I’ll wonder if I should have made that extra visit or how many more times I should have stopped in to check on [the offender],” he says, his gaze drifting back to the desktop again. “The thing is, I know I’m already out there more often than the state says I should be, and I know I just can’t be everywhere at once.”

Scott, like many professionals directly involved with the management of sex offenders, is no stranger to the Sisyphean frustrations of a job that few people envy and even fewer understand. From prosecution and sentencing to treatment and supervision, the system for handling sex offenses rarely receives any attention until a tragedy occurs. However, in casting such a selective eye at the process, much of the media and the general public may be missing the most significant tool for creating both safer communities and a more effective system of justice: information.

‘Right now, the system just doesn’t work,” shrugs Lisa Smith, director of the Sexual Assault and Crime Victims Program for Rensselaer County. “What people don’t seem to realize is that many [offenders] respond to treatment. They’re not just throwaway people.”

Forensic psychologist Richard Hamill, one of the state’s most noted professionals in the treatment of sex offenders, echoes that sentiment. Hamill says he frequently encounters misconceptions about offenders’ rates of recidivism (lowest among all types of criminals), the effect of treatment (anywhere from 8- to 50-percent reduction in reoffense rates, depending on quality of treatment) and the merits of reintegration (a stable home and job cuts reoffense rate by 10 to 30 percent)—even among trained professionals.

“The rates of reoffending are far lower than anyone realizes,” explains Hamill. “Literally thousands of people I’ve worked with have successfully integrated back into communities and never been involved in any more incidents.”

Like her peers, Smith says that a little information could go a long way when it comes to making the system more effective and making their jobs easier. And as someone whose view of sex-offender management often occurs through the eyes of victims, Smith’s perspective on the merits of the reintegration system—and its persistent flaws—may be an especially important voice in the call for new solutions.

“Right now, the victims’ systems and offenders’ systems are entirely separate entities, with everyone just charging ahead to fulfill their responsibilities,” explains Smith. “[The public] needs to know more about the system [of sex-offender management] because they’re the ones that are going to be chosen for juries. They need to know what the myths are.”

While Megan’s Law and other federal legislation passed during the mid-1990s established rules for registering convicted sex offenders on a statewide database and notifying communities when offenders changed residence, nearly 10 years after their implementation, confusion still surrounds these policies. From who should actually be on the list (and for how long) to how much information the public should be given about each type of offender, states are given a significant amount of leeway in developing their own guidelines for managing convicted sex offenders. This, combined with some states’ willingness to let their policies evolve while other states (such as New York) have resisted such change, has created dramatic differences in the way sexual crimes—and their perpetrators—are handled across the nation.

“We had a fellow who was transferring here from Washington,” remembers Hamill, who is the president of both the New York State Alliance of Sex Offender Service Providers and the New York State Chapter of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. “In Washington, he was a Level 1.” During their sentencing, offenders are assigned risk-assessment level of 1, 2 or 3, with level 3 assigned to those offenders judged most likely to reoffend. The amount of information made available to the public, as well as the amount of supervision and treatment required for offenders upon their reentry into a community, rises according to the level assigned to each offender. “When he arrived [in New York], though, he suddenly became a Level 3,” says Hamill.

This broad-brush approach to putting sex offenders in the highest risk category has given New York some of the most unique sex-offender demographics in the entire nation. While Level 3 offenders constitute only 10 to 15 percent of most states’ supervised sex offenders, more than 50 percent of the sex offenders in New York have been assigned a Level 3 ranking.

According to Hamill, New York’s questionable risk-assessment system, and not an affinity for the state among high-level offenders, lies at the heart of this dramatic difference. While other states employ more well-regarded and widely used assessment tests such as the Minnesota Sex-Offender Screening Tool or Canada’s Static-99, New York relies upon its own test, the New York Risk Assessment Guidelines.

But the NYRAG has become the focus of some harsh criticism from both the government and professionals in recent years. For one thing, many professionals say it relies on factors that have no predictive value whatsoever. And a recent analysis of the test by psychologists specializing in the treatment of sex offenders has cast doubts upon some of its assumptions. In one example, when assessing the risk of reoffense for an offender who committed a crime via a professional relationship (i.e., teacher and student or doctor and patient), the NYRAG assumes that the offender entered that career with the sole intent of preying upon the individuals under his or her care. Hamill says that while this does happen, it is not common—most sex offenses are not so premediated.

In a recent newsletter issued by the NYSASOSP and NYSATSA, the inadequacies of the NYRAG are discussed in detail, with a final conclusion that “neither the reliability of the New York Risk Assessment Guidelines, nor its validity appears to have been scientifically examined or substantiated.”

While the methods for assessing offenders’ threat have caused headaches among professionals, the public’s awareness of the types of crimes labeled “sex offense” has become equally rife with confusion. Though much of the media seem content with using the terms “sex offender” and “child molester” as if they were interchangeable, they are not. While pedophiles are the targets of most media attention, officials’ statements and legislation, they aren’t the only individuals subject to the state’s standard 10-year inclusion on the registry upon conviction of a sex crime.

“People talk about the [sex offender] registry as if it’s this master list of child molesters,” says Smith, who says she frequently reminds people that “ not every sex offender chooses a child victim.”

Along with the high population of registry inhabitants who sexually assault adults, low-level offenders like voyeurs and people who expose themselves in public occupy a substantial niche in the state’s database. In fact, the percentage of these type of offenders in the registry’s overall population has risen in recent years as more district attorneys’ offices have adopted policies preventing individuals accused of a sex crime from pleading down to a non-sex-related crime and thereby avoiding inclusion on the registry.

Further complicating the issue are scenarios such as a 17-year-old boy caught engaging in a sexual relationship with his 15-year-old girlfriend. According to state law, the boy will likely find himself on the registry alongside peeping toms and subway gropers and subject to the same home visits, probation and treatment guidelines required for other low-level offenders—a condition that provides interesting context for proposals like Gov. George E. Pataki’s recent call for lifelong registration for all sex offenders.

“What people don’t seem to realize is that Level 1 offenders get the same 10 years on the registry and the same 10 years on probation as someone who abused a 12-year-old girl,” explains Scott. “As long as they’re on probation, I have to check on [Level 1 offenders] every two weeks like the state says, even though they might be someone who made a onetime mistake—someone who met a girl in a bar that maybe shouldn’t have been in that bar in the first place. That’s the way it works.”

Some argue that the nature of the offenses warrants placing all offenders under such a high level of supervision, no matter the uncertainties regarding their actual level of threat. While this might seem a reasonable theory, the resources needed to implement such a policy have been difficult to come by in recent years. With the public eye often focused on the prosecution and sentencing of sex offenders and little attention paid to what happens afterwards—unless another crime occurs, that is—many counties’ post-adjudication resources are stretched thin. It’s a hard sell to get funding for sex offenders when so many people are fond of saying they should “stay in jail forever,” as Albany County Legislator Shawn Morse did Monday.

Currently, few probation or parole agencies have more than one person on staff with the specialized training necessary for this type of intense supervision.

“I’ve got about 40 to 45 cases at a time,” says Scott, the lone probation officer charged with monitoring Rensselaer County’s sex offenders. “State guidelines say that 20 or 21 [offenders per probation officer] is ideal, but that’s never going to happen.”

What makes Scott’s caseload even more formidable is the routine—or lack thereof—such supervision requires. According to Scott, state law requires that low-risk offenders receive, at the very least, a weekly visit. For high-risk offenders, however, Scott says he makes as many visits as time allows—sometimes it’s just a quick check to make sure the offender still lives where he or she claims to live, sometimes it’s a thorough search of the offender’s garbage bags, library, videotapes, ceiling tiles and every other nook and cranny for anything that would violate the terms of their probation, he says.

“It’s at least a two-hour process sometimes,” says Scott. “That’s why these home visits are so difficult. . . . If they have 40 books on a shelf, you have to go through every one of them to make sure there aren’t any with the middles cut out.”

According to Scott, criss-crossing Rensselaer County from one sex offender’s home to the next while still trying to mix up the timing of the visits keeps him on the road much of the week.

In addition to the standard search routine, officers like Scott have also had to consider the changing standard for home technology in their visits, too. In order to account for offenders’ Internet activities, Albany County Principal Probation Officer Bill Connors recently spearheaded the training of his officers in the use of Penguin Sleuth, a disc-run program that can sift through a personal computer for pictures, movies or text. The software allows Albany’s lone specialized officer (the county’s 60-plus offenders are currently divided between this officer and several others with low-level offender experience) to simply insert a disc onto an offender’s computer and conduct a digital search while the physical one is underway.

“[The program] saves us a tremendous amount of time,” explains Connors, “not only because we can have it run while we conduct the rest of the visit, but because we don’t have to bring the whole setup back to the office here and return it again afterward.”

Possibly the most controversial—and least understood—aspect of sex-offender management is the reintegration of offenders into communities. While the economic advantages of reintegration over longer incarceration are clear—incarceration can cost two to three times more than community supervision and treatment—the policies surrounding this process are generally misunderstood by the public.

One popular misconception is that inclusion on the registry means supervision. In fact, very few of the individuals listed on the sex-offender registry are actually under any supervision at all. While every person convicted of a sex crime after 1994 is included on the registry for some period of time (10 years on average), post-release supervision comes into the mix only when an offender volunteers for treatment while incarcerated. Offenders who refuse treatment and serve out their full sentence are still included on the registry, but are not subject to any probation or parole supervision.

According to many professionals working with sex offenders, this scenario illustrates one of the most prominent contradictions in sex-offender policy: Those people most in need of supervision (i.e., who haven’t had treatment) often aren’t the ones receiving it.

Earlier this year, sex-offender management made headlines around the region as local residents—with a nudge from local media—discovered four paroled sex offenders living in a Malta motel. Faced with a public outcry over the situation, town and county officials, along with the motel owner, forced the offenders to move on to new lodgings.

“We don’t want a concentration,” reasoned Town Supervisor David R. Meager in the days following the discovery, echoing the sentiment of many town residents.

Yet, as with most “not in my backyard” scenarios, little thought was given to where the offenders would go. While the county’s parole department probably will be saddled with the task of finding them new homes, often such offenders end up in the only lodging available to the recently released: a homeless shelter.

While most shelters check new residents against the sex-offender registry, the grouping of convicted sex offenders with other shelter occupants—frequently homeless women and children, sometimes fleeing domestic abuse—is an oft-overlooked consequence of communities’ knee-jerk reactions. And offenders who are homeless are much harder to monitor properly.

“It’s certainly something we have to be alert to,” says Ira Mandelker, executive director of the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society.

The scenario in Malta serves to illustrate another unintended—and unfortunate—consequence of misunderstood policy, in that much of town residents’ complaints focused on the concentration of sex offenders at the motel. Grouping supervised sex offenders in one area is actually a common practice for parole and probation departments around the nation, as officers’ ability to check in on several offenders at once rather than having to travel across the county for each offender not only cuts down on travel expenses, but also allows for more frequent visits.

In Syracuse, the parole department has been directing convicted sex offenders to an apartment complex in the city’s commercial district for several years now, resulting in nearly 30-percent occupancy by offenders. Placing offenders in the building, which has cameras posted at each entrance and exit, not only allows for easier policing by parole officers, but also by fellow occupants. And in the 12 years the building has been home to this controversial community, there hasn’t been a single sex crime committed by one of its occupants.

“If you talk to parole officers, they’ll tell you they prefer to have sex offenders clustered together,” says Hamill. “It allows [the officers] to do a better job of keeping an eye on the offenders.”

Still, among all of the difficulties inherent to successful reintegration, one obstacle tends to receive more echoes among professionals than any other: lack of communication.

Whether it’s between different county agencies, agencies in the same county or agencies and the public, when the topic turns to sex crimes, lines of communication have a nasty habit of getting crossed, say many of those involved with managing offenders.

With this in mind, Hamill, Connors, and a host of other local law-enforcement representatives, victim advocates, prosecutors and treatment specialists established the Capital District Coalition for Sex Offender Management in 1999. The coalition’s purpose, according to members, is to bring together not only the representatives from each aspect of offender management—prosecution, investigation, supervision, treatment and victim advocacy—but also each of five counties around the Capital Region. Only by taking an in-this-together approach, reasons Hamill, can the system work the way it’s intended.

“One county is not big enough to do a truly good job with [sex-offender management],” explains Hamill, who also serves as CDCSOM’s project director. “[CDCSOM] is an experiment. It’s intended to show exactly how much can get done—and how much safer communities can be—when there’s a regional approach.”

And with its mix of urban and rural environments, the Capital Region seemed an entirely appropriate testing ground for such a project, says Hamill. After securing a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2002, the CDCSOM project began its two-year experiment in bringing together professionals like Smith and Scott and the public they serve.

The success of this one-of-a-kind collaboration has, to put it mildly, surprised even the coalition’s members.

It was during a meeting earlier this year of CDCSOM’s core group of representatives that members showed how they could strip away the usual formalities and get right to the heart of their issues:

As Project Coordinator Noel Thomas begins listing the results of a survey, Hamill interjects, “Rather than going through a list here, let’s stop and find out what’s catching people’s attention.”

As with many of the group’s activities, there’s a decidedly unbureaucratic feel to the assembly of prosecutors, probation officers, victim advocates and other professionals. Rather than meeting for meeting’s sake, many of the room’s occupants appear eager to discuss the problems they’ve encountered since they last met and—in possibly the most unbureaucratic activity of all—find solutions.

When one member mentions a county policy in which no sentence is handed down on a sex crime until the offender undergoes a specialized evaluation, Hamill defers to representatives of the various county prosecution and probation agencies, asking if this is a policy they are all operating under.

“I don’t know if our judges realize it’s an option,” says Scott, while another attendee asks how such evaluations are funded.

And the meetings continue as such, with each county’s representatives describing the practices they’ve had success with, the areas they’d like to improve and the situations that are giving them trouble. These days, though, there’s a sense of urgency in the group’s discussions, as the project is funded only through the end of 2005 and there’s no certainty that the coalition’s accomplishments thus far will be enough to encourage renewal.

What is certain, however, is that great strides have been made. The group recently contracted with a specialized polygraph (lie detector) expert to provide services to all the coalition members—a handy tool for determining whether they’re being honest about their past and present activities. Having someone on staff is saving counties money over out-sourcing each time it’s needed.

The coalition also has provided training for town and village magistrates in the handling of sex-related misdemeanors (i.e., public lewdness and other noncontact activities), in the hope of bringing every level of offender management up to speed with current practices. Under Connors’ instruction, the various probation departments around the region have begun training on Penguin Sleuth, while plans are still underway to provide workshops for some of the region’s oft-overlooked homes for offenders: the local juvenile detention facilities.

The coalition also hopes to convince lawmakers of the merits in using new technology like Global Positioning Satellite units to keep tabs on high-level offenders (Albany County passed a resolution supporting this on Monday) and push for more liberal use of probation periods—lifetime, in some cases—during the sentencing of such offenders. Keeping high-risk offenders on probation—and, of course, having enough funds to properly monitor them—would allow probation officers to stop many incidents of recidivism before they happen, says Hamill.

“You wouldn’t need [offenders] to commit a crime in order to respond,” he says.

By keeping high-risk offenders on probation, legal activities that occasionally precede reoffense (i.e., drinking, visiting a playground, etc.) could be made grounds for violation of the offender’s terms of probation, explains Hamill.

The most important of the coalition’s goals also seems to be the one that has met with the most success: more regional communication. Immeasurable as such an accomplishment is, it tends to be the first thing members mention when discussing the program’s value.

“If I know one of my guys is moving to Schenectady, now I know I can just pick up the phone,” says Scott of the working relationships the coalition has fostered between counties. “In the past, it might take a judge two or three months to sign a transfer order, and until that paperwork hit my desk, [the offender] would be unsupervised.”

Although CDCSOM’s mem bers realize that the steps they’re taking are simply one small part of a longer journey, there’s a sincere sense of accomplishment among the various agencies associated with the project. The next step, according to Hamill, is bringing those accomplishments into the public eye.

Amid all the recent headlines and hysteria, however, generating public interest in anything related to sex offenders that doesn’t advocate their complete removal from society is a tough sell.

“We’ve talked about creating more publicity—so that people know we’re out there and we’re trying to make the system work better,” sighs Smith. “But whenever we hold community forums or town-hall meetings, we rarely get a good turnout. Sometimes it feels like people aren’t necessarily ready to hear this information.”

Until they are, though, Hamill and other members of the coalition insist that they’ll continue to look for ways to solve the red-tape and revenue problems of sex-offender management. They’re quick to point out, however, that the most effective method for keeping your family and community safe may be the actions you can take in your own home.

“To tell you the truth,” says Hamill, “I haven’t even looked at the registry to see if there are any sex offenders in my neighborhood. What I have done, is have a lot of conversations with my family about what to do in different situations. Just keeping the lines of communication open is sometimes the most important safety measure you can take.”

rmarshall@metroland.net

 

photocap:Knowledge is safety: CDCSOM's Noel Thomas and Richard Hamill.

photocredit:Chris Shields

 

 

While stories involving both sex and crime can make media providers salivate, the desire for eye-catching headlines may be doing a disservice when it comes to giving the public an accurate representation of the threat posed by sex offenders. Here, we provide a brief summary of some facts that tend to be glossed over, misrepresented or outright ignored by mainstream coverage of sex-offender issues. This information, along with other myth-versus-fact comparisons and reference materials, can be found at the Web site for the Center of Sex Offender Management, a project of the United States Department of Justice (http://www.csom.org/pubs/mythsfacts.html).

Strangers rarely commit sexual assaults.

Ninety percent of adult victims of sexual assault had a prior relationship (family member, intimate or acquaintance) with the offender.

In sexual offenses against children, the offender is known to the family in 60 percent of the incidents involving boys and 80 percent in those involving girls.

Not all sex offenders reoffend. In fact, sex offenders are less likely to reoffend than other criminals.

Rates of reoffense vary among the types of sex offenders. According to a 1998 study, 13 percent of child molesters and 19 percent of rapists are reconvicted for sexual offenses. However, 35 to 45 percent of these offenders are reconvicted for non-sex offenses over a five-year period. Another study determined that 9 percent of incest offenders reoffend.

In contrast, a 1983 study found that 63 percent of criminals incarcerated for non-sexual offenses were rearrested for felonies or serious misdemeanors within three years of their release.

Fewer sexual-offense crimes are happening each year.

According to statistics from the FBI, the arrest rate for all sexual offenses dropped 16 percent between 1993 and 1998.

Most sex offenders were not abused as children and abused children do not automatically become sex offenders.

Only 30 percent of adult sex offenders were sexually abused as children. However, approximately 40 to 80 percent of all juvenile sex offenders, who commit for 20 percent of all rapes and 50 percent of all child molestations, were sexually abused.

It’s not cheaper to keep sex offenders in prison.

A single year of high-level supervision and treatment in the community costs between $5,000 and $15,000 for each offender. A single year of incarceration, without treatment, costs approximately $22,000 for a single prisoner.


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