Psychologists periodically tell patients that in life, you sometimes have to choose between being right and getting what you want. Unfortunately, many people settle for the first instead of acquiring the emotional skills to get the second.
The people of California currently face a similar situation—would we rather FEEL safer or BE safer?
When the subject is sex offenders, of course, feelings dominate public policy. And so the California Sex Offender Management Board faces an almost impossible task in overhauling and improving the way the state handles its 100,000 Registered Sex Offenders. The Legislature is going to vote no.
California is one of only four states that require all sex offenders, regardless of offense, to register for life. That includes over 800 people whose last sex crime was more than a half-century ago. The enormous amount of money spent keeping track of these people is mostly wasted, and could be far better spent on actually protecting Californians.
And so the Board is recommending to the state Legislature that only high-risk offenders, such as kidnappers and violent predators, should be required to register for life. Others could be removed from the registry 10 or 20 years after their offense. Not 10 or 20 days, weeks or months. Ten or 20 years.
The Board’s chair is no Pollyanna—she’s the District Attorney of Alameda County, a densely populated, ethnically diverse area which includes Oakland and has more than its share of violence and poverty. She knows her science, though, and says the proposal “won’t jeopardize public safety or unleash sex offenders who are dangerous into the community.”
As with smoking, nutrition, and alcohol, our understanding of science (and therefore of risk) has improved greatly in the 70 years since California’s Sex Offender Registry was created. We know now that:
* Most sex crimes are NOT committed by people who are Registered Sex Offenders;
* Sex Offender Registries do NOT decrease the number of sex offenses;
* Sex offenders have the lowest rate of same-category re-offending of any group of felons.
We also know that sex offenders are a heterogeneous group with vastly differing risk profiles. And of course different sex offenses pose different risks to the community. But most Sex Offender Registries, including California’s, make little distinction between people who (1) make obscene phone calls, (2) have consensual sex with a teenager three years their junior, or (3) kidnap a child.
Similarly, neither the justice system nor the Registry generally distinguish between adults who offend with their own child and adults who offend with a convenient child they don’t know. From the perspective of risk to the community, the two adults (they’re rarely the same) are vastly different.
The mass media make things worse, by using the words “child molester,” “pedophile,” “child porn collector,” and “sex offender” synonymously. Newspapers, magazines, and blogs are obsessed with lurid stories of sexual torture and exploitation; they rarely note the vicious mob mentality that metes out life sentences to the tens of thousands of our harmless brothers, sons, and fathers rounded up for public masturbation, consensual sex with high school sweethearts, computer repairs that uncover child porn installed by malware, and consensual sex between two drunk people that ends with regret, shame, and accusation.
Politicians, of course, are hesitant to consider the facts rationally, fearing they’ll be described as “soft on crime.” Some politicians are honest about this, saying their constituents are concerned and easily angered. Others, however, insult even the profession of politician. One example is State Senator Jim Neilsen (R-Gerber), who says “This proposal concerns me enormously…I think the risks are too great to try to intellectualize this stuff.”
“Intellectualize”—this elected public servant actually says that attempting to formulate public policy by using science or thinking is a mistake.
Mr. Neilsen should stay out of airplanes. You know, the risks are too great to try to intellectualize how they actually work.