Despite what you’ve been told

by Vicky Campo

Despite what you’ve been told, those who commit sexual offenses hardly ever recidivate.

Many of us still believe the unfounded myth that those who commit sexual offenses cannot be reformed. We hear it repeated so often that it has become part of our country’s criminal justice narrative. It’s why we put people who have committed such offenses on public registries and lifetime probation. We often don’t allow them in parks, libraries, churches, malls, movies, or McDonalds. Some aren’t even permitted to have access to the internet, leaving them in complete social isolation.

And we do this for what seem to be obvious reasons. They’re “sex offenders.” The assertion itself is the justification. And we think we are keeping our communities safe. However, this narrative rests on a false assumption. It comes from a Supreme Court decision siting a “frightening and high” recidivism rate, as high as 80% or more, for those who have committed sexual offenses.

The National Association for Rational Sex Offense Laws (NARSOL) points out:

The sole piece of evidence that led Justice Kennedy to make such a bold claim came from a 1986 Psychology Today article written by Ronald Longo, a counselor who ran a treatment program in an Oregon prison—and there was absolutely no statistical basis for his “80 percent” assertion. Moreover, Longo himself has since rejected that figure…

In his paper, “Frightening and High”: The Supreme Court’s Crucial Mistake about Sex Crime Statistics, Professor Ira Ellman demonstrates how these claims are unfounded, based solely on pop-culture references and political speeches.

We now have more than 30 years of evidence showing that only 3.5% of those convicted of sexual offenses are reconvicted of another sexual offense within three years. That’s compared to a 40%-70% rate for other crimes, making those who have committed sexual offenses the least likely to commit another sexual offense.

Patty Wetterling, whose son Jacob was kidnapped and brutally murdered, and who fought for a national registry, has now acknowledged that such registries do not work.

…in most states “sex offender” covers anyone, including juveniles, convicted of any sexual offense, including consensual teenage sex, public urination and other non-violent crimes. Second, Jacob was the exception, not the rule: more than 90 percent of sexual violence is committed by someone the child knows. And third, most shocking to me, sex offenders are less likely to re-offend than commonly thought. A Department of Justice study suggested ex-offenders have a recidivism rate of 3 percent to 5 percent within the first three years after release. (emphasis added)

The hidden danger in basing our public policies on these fear-based myths is that it harms us all. The social isolation I mentioned earlier can actually INCREASE recidivism and make victims less likely to report sexual offenses, since 90% of victims knew the offender prior to the crime. In addition to social isolation, there are barriers to employment and housing that keep registered citizens from becoming stable, contributing members of their communities.

Instead of forcing registered citizens, who pose little risk of re-offense, into isolation, AZRSOL believes that those who have paid their debt to society deserve a fair chance at a fresh start. If you agree, we hope you will support our work. And while you’re at it, share it with a friend.

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