Busting the missing 100,000

Guest Blogger — Jill Levenson on “Fugitive Sexual Offenders”

Good Morning, Folks:

Here’s a guest blog by former and incoming ATSA Board Member Jill Levenson of Florida.

regarding http://www.scrippsnews.com/projects/fugitive-sex-offenders

Dr. Jill Levenson, Dr. Andrew Harris, Dr. Alissa Ackerman, and Dr. Kristen Zgoba are currently embarking on a series of research projects exploring the make-up and utility of U.S. registries as well as the intended goals and outcomes of the Adam Walsh Act. In a recent article submitted for publication to a reputable social science journal, we analyzed data on 445,127 registered sex offenders obtained directly from the public registries of 49 states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico and Guam. In contrast with the homogenized perception about registered sex offenders that permeates much public discourse, the analysis illuminated the wide diversity of registrants across a range of demographic, offense-related, registry status, and risk-oriented variables.

Specifically, we attempted to clarify the repeatedly cited statistic that 100,000 sex offenders are “missing.” Curiously, we were able to identify only 17,688 RSOs who were designated by states to be transient, homeless, absconded, non-compliant, or whose address or whereabouts are otherwise unknown. Nationwide, a total of 5,349 offenders were officially listed as absconded; 1,264 were listed as missing/unable to be located and 4,152 were listed as having failed to comply with registration requirements. We had no way of specifically confirming the number of fugitive sex offenders, since states had a wide variety of methods for classifying absconders, registration violators, and others whose locations are uncertain. Despite the NCMEC report that “at least 100,000 sex offenders are noncompliant and no one knows where they are” (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 2007), we have been unable to ascertain NCMEC’s formula for their calculation of missing sex offenders. Using the data downloaded directly from public registries, and utilizing the inclusive figure of 17,688 offenders described above (approximately 4% of our total sample), we found no evidence to support the notion that one-sixth (or about 17%) of the nation’s sex offenders are missing or unaccounted for.

It is unlikely that all sex offenders who fail to comply with registration are willful violators, and despite the claims of the U.S. Marshall’s Service most noncompliant offenders do not appear to have absconded. Many “missing” sex offenders are not truly missing; they may appear to be missing due to inadequate or incomplete address information, data entry errors, lag times in updating registry information, unauthorized travel, or homelessness. Some might be confused by complex registration laws, carelessly neglecting to fulfill registration requirements but continuing to report to parole or probation agents and remaining in their known locations despite their lapsed registration.

Through our data analysis, we were also able to extrapolate and draw some general inferences about the relative risk of the U.S. RSO population. Through our data collection process, we know that approximately 33% of the RSOs reported by NCMEC are not listed on public registries. Thus, we presume that about one-third of the nation’s sex offenders have been assessed by their state’s sex offender management procedure to pose low risk for future offending, and therefore they are not subjected to community notification. Even among those found on public registries (ostensibly higher risk offenders from some states and all offenders from other states), a distribution of risk exists, with a minority designated in most states as high risk, predator, or sexually violent.

Another notable finding is the considerable number of RSOs who are not residing in the community. All told, approximately 12% (N=52,248) of RSOs appear to not be living in the community, with a total of 47,978 people incarcerated or civilly committed, 1,028 listed as deceased, and 3,251 listed as deported.

Interestingly, in several published studies, failure to register as a sex offender was not associated with an increased likelihood of sexual reoffending.

Public internet registries were designed to alert citizens to the presence of sex offenders living nearby so that action can be taken to potentially prevent victimization. It is unclear why deported or deceased offenders remain on public registries, as the public safety value of this information seems dubious. As well, the funding allocated for tracking the nation’s sex offenders is based on the registry count reported by NCMEC — an inflated figure that includes individuals for whom no tracking is needed because they are institutionalized, dead, or deported. In one particularly illuminating example, out of over 54,000 sex offenders registered in Florida, more than half are not actually living in Florida communities. About 28% are institutionalized and about one-quarter are living in other states. This information is not readily apparent in the data reported by NCMEC; rather, it was evident only after downloading a publicly available datafile from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement website and speaking with the state’s registry data manager to resolve discrepancies. In other words, many publicly identified RSOs may not be living amongst us.

As for the Adam Walsh Act, which sought to introduce greater uniformity of sex offender registration and notification systems, we concur that standardized definitions and measures across states would help close gaps that currently exist and provide for needed consistency in policies. However, the rules by which AWA seeks to impose jurisdictional uniformity – rules that rely on a common offense-based classification scheme and ignore other germane risk factors – are far more likely to obscure important differences among registered offenders than to shed more light on them. Offense-based designations cover a wide and diverse spectrum of behavior patterns, and accordingly obscure important distinctions impacting a given offender’s public safety risk. Researchers from NY have already found that the Adam Walsh tiers did a poor job of predicting reoffending. Many states have adopted more refined approaches (e.g. utilizing empirically derived risk assessment methods) to distinguish the most dangerous offenders and to assist in the efficient allocation of resources concordant with an offender’s threat to the community. The tier system under the Adam Walsh Act, however, will potentially render certain aspects of those systems obsolete, mandating increasingly more inclusive public internet disclosure that ultimately might prove to be less informative for concerned citizens. This problem is one of the controversies impacting nationwide compliance with federal law.

Prevention of repeat sexual violence is a complex endeavor not easily solved with statutory solutions. The current emphasis on publicly identifying and tracking known offenders may do a disservice to the public, since over 90% of sexually abused children are victimized by someone well known to them with no previous sex crime record, not a stranger found on a registry. Recidivism rates are much lower than commonly believed; the U.S. Dept of Justice reported a 5.3% sexual recidivism rate over 3 years and Canadian researchers report about 14% over 4-6 years. Even over longer follow-up periods of 15-20 years, research indicates that about three-quarters of sex offenders are NOT re-arrested for a subsequent sex crime (in stark contrast to this statement: “These guys are dangerous,” Anderson said. “They have a sexual appetite that can only be satisfied by going after who they deem to be sexually arousing — such as kids, minors, toddlers, infants — and doing it by rape. When they want sex, they want it then.”).
Certainly, a subgroup of sexual offenders IS dangerous and likely to reoffend. But the quickly growing population of registered sex offenders (now nearing one million) obscures our ability to identify the most high risk individuals, and spreads resources quite thin. A more targeted approach using risk assessment methods would help to allocate resources more efficiently to provide closer monitoring of those more likely to pose a threat to public safety.

Jill Levenson, Ph.D.

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