Editorial: Reject failed remedies for sex offenders

The MetroWest Daily News

The great advantage Americans get from having 50 state governments and thousands of local governments tackling tough issues is that empowered people can come up with new solutions - and test them in their own communities. Ideas that work can be replicated elsewhere; those that fail can be rejected.

That advantage works only if we learn from other communities' failures, which is why a series of articles on sex offender registries from GateHouse News Service deserves close reading. Lauren FitzPatrick's reporting took her from Marlborough to Texas and plenty of points in between. She found that some politically popular initiatives - notably laws that limit where convicted sex offenders can live - simply don't work.

More than half the states now impose some residency restrictions on convicted sex offenders, but statistics show no reduction in sexual offenses. In six of the 14 states that have imposed statewide residency rules, the number of reported offenses has actually increased. Between court challenges, the cost of enforcement and the effect on neighbors' property values, the laws have also proved expensive.

The greatest problem with residency restrictions is that they undermine sex offender registries by driving underground the very people we're supposed to be keeping an eye on. Since Iowa adopted its residency restrictions, the number of sex offenders who cannot be tracked jumped from 140 to more than 400, prompting that state's prosecutors to call for its repeal.

Residency restrictions and some other approaches are so strongly geared toward assaults by strangers in public places that they ignore a greater threat. Justice Department data show that nine out of 10 child victims are abused by someone they know, often a friend or relative.

In many states, sex offender registry laws are too broadly written, lumping those convicted of public urination or teenagers caught having sex with under-aged girlfriends in the same category as violent sexual predators. That's not only unfair, it is a waste of law enforcement resources.

While headline-conscious politicians put their faith in building ever stronger punishments into the criminal code, more productive approaches get short-shrift. Teaching children to recognize and report adults who violate their ``safety zone'' is as effective at preventing an assault by a trusted uncle as a stranger in the park. Effective treatment for sex offenders reduces recidivism by nearly 40 percent. That's far from perfect, but no residency restriction has so dramatic an impact. Treatment for sex abuse victims has also proven effective at interrupting the cycle of abuse.

Rather than jump on the residency restriction bandwagon, states and municipalities should focus their energy on programs that actually work. Our system of multiple jurisdictions is not only good at testing ideas that don't work; it can also germinate new ones. Given the persistence of the problem of sexual abuse, new ideas are surely needed.