By Rick Marshall
our communities safe from sex offenders requires getting past
the hysteria to solutions that really work
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.’ ”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
wouldn’t need [offenders] to commit a crime in order to respond,”
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.
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
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.
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.”
photocap:Knowledge is safety: CDCSOM's Noel Thomas and
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).
rarely commit sexual assaults.
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.
all sex offenders reoffend. In fact, sex offenders are less
likely to reoffend than other criminals.
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.
sexual-offense crimes are happening each year.
to statistics from the FBI, the arrest rate for all sexual
offenses dropped 16 percent between 1993 and 1998.
sex offenders were not abused as children and abused children
do not automatically become sex offenders.
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.
not cheaper to keep sex offenders in prison.
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.