Posts Tagged ‘New York’

No group is more feared or reviled in American society than sex offenders.  As a result, both state and federal laws have become more and more harsh over time. This hasn’t necessarily been in response to the need for harsher sentences, but reflects more of a political response to high-profile tragedies that stoke the flames of hatred and paranoia about sexual predation (PDF).

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Although they are also driven by fear, sex offender registries in particular have been a favored community response to sexual crimes, and many believe that they are an important instrument for preventing sex offenses.

What we know, though, is that this isn’t necessarily the case.

Most offenders (approaching 90%) are known to their victims. Stranger assaults are one of the rarest forms of sex crime, so knowing where a sex offender lives does little in the way of preventing these crimes from occurring.

Even those who have suffered most directly, such as Patty Wetterling, have come to recognize that draconian laws, including sex offender registries, are not the only or best way to move forward.

This hasn’t stopped one community in New York, though, that has decided to privatize monitoring of registration compliance in ways that are neither useful nor rational.  Known as “Trackers,” employees of a private non-profit are paid to monitor the locations of certain sex offenders in the community.

Although it receives $1 million dollars in public funds, the agency that employs the Trackers won’t disclose exactly what their procedures are for monitoring.

It appears, however, their tactics mainly involve harassment and intimidation intended to discourage sex offenders from living in their community at all.

While no one is arguing that sexual offending is a minor concern, or that such crimes should go unpunished, jurisdictions around the country are beginning to recognize that harsh laws alone are not the primary answer.

According to Alissa Ackerman, a criminal justice professor quoted in an NPR story on this issue:

…while there are many jurisdictions like Suffolk County still creating broad, harsh restrictions against sex offenders, the national trend is the other way. More and more communities are creating nuanced laws that attempt to match restrictions with the likelihood an offender will commit another offense.

Instead of lumping all offenders into the catch-all category, “sex offenders,” and then treating them all as being equally dangerous, there’s a recognition that some are more dangerous than others.

The most dangerous and predatory are likely in need of closer monitoring, supervision, and management (PDF).

But, private agencies intent on engaging primarily in harassment are less than helpful, and may even be creating additional risks without intending to do so.

Again, Professor Ackerman:

When we are destabilizing offenders, when we’re making it very difficult for them to find housing or very difficult to find work, we’re causing more stress, and that may in the future lead to recidivism.

What are your thoughts on this controversial topic?

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Because of their complexity, evaluating criminal justice interventions is a particularly challenging endeavor. Attempting to isolate and control for all of the variables involved is a real barrier, and the reported outcomes tend to suffer as a result. This is just as true for court-based interventions as it is for other any other area of the system. Single-site evaluations of a particular approach, such as a specialty court, can easily be weakened by threats to validity caused by variations in implementation.

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A recent study released by the Center for Court Innovation about the effects of New York’s Domestic Violence courts took a different approach that overcomes some of the threats to validity that can limit the applicability of results. Instead of focusing on a single case, researchers examined outcomes across a system of 24 Domestic Violence courts.  They evaluated a matched sample of offenders, half who participated in a traditional court, and half who participated in a Domestic Violence court in the same system.

The results are subtle and nuanced, and provide some useful insights for jurisdictions looking to implement such a court.  Here are the authors’ conclusion:

This study of New York’s domestic violence courts demonstrated a modest positive impact on
recidivism among convicted offenders, though not among all defendants. The study did not
detect a significant overall impact on conviction rates or incarceration sentences, although the
domestic violence courts produced significantly more punitive outcomes (higher conviction and
incarceration rates) for male offenders. Consistent with previous research, the study suggests that
not all domestic violence courts seek the same goals, follow the same policy model, or achieve
the same impacts. This study also found that those domestic violence courts that prioritize
deterrence and that both prioritize and implement specific policies to sanction offender
noncompliance, while also addressing the needs of victims, are most effective in reducing
recidivism. Knowing that modest recidivism reductions are possible can set the stage for future
research and development on promising practices that offer the prospect of maximizing the
benefits of these specialized courts (emphasis added).

As in other criminal justice interventions, implementation appeared to be key to improving outcomes. It’s not just the presence of a Domestic Violence court that makes a difference, it’s the specific policies and practices, as well as the philosophical orientation of the participants that leads to positive results. In other words, the details matter.

Are you aware of any other outcome studies like the above and, if so, how do the results compare?