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Myth or Reality?

Registering sex offenders helps cut down on repeat sex crimes.

Last week our blog addressed the vexing issue of how to treat and control sex offenders. A few days later, on February 28, 2010 17-year-old San Diego high school student Chelsea King was abducted, attacked and killed while running in a San Diego, California park. Police investigators used DNA evidence found on the body to identify John Albert Gardner III, a repeat offender, as Chelsea’s alleged attacker, the same man who in May of 2000 pled guilty to molesting a 13-year-old female neighbor and served five years of a six-year prison term.

As we noted last week, there are now laws that permit state officials to indefinitely confine presumably dangerous sex offenders, even after they have served their prison terms. In addition, a number of promising treatment approaches are now being developed. For example, some sex offenders undergo a process called “arousal reconditioning,” in which a deviant sexual fantasy they may be unable to control is linked with a foul odor such as ammonia or skunk spray, or a disturbing visual image, in order to reduce or neutralize inappropriate sexual feelings. But no single treatment has yet proven totally effective.

Another approach has been to enact Megan’s Laws that create sex offender registration sites that the public can access via the Internet. These laws are named after Megan Kanka, a seven year old New Jersey girl who was raped and murdered by Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender who had moved into her neighborhood after being released from prison. Today all 50 states operate some form of registration alerting the public to the presence of a known sex offender in their community.

While politically attractive and socially reassuring, does registering sex offenders really work? Not according to careful research conducted by Kristen Zgoba and Karen Bachar who found that while expensive to maintain, the system incorporated in New Jersey did not produce effective results. On one hand, sex offense rates were in a steep decline before the system was installed and the greatest rate of decline occurred prior to the pas­sage and implementation of Megan’s Law. They also found that registering sex offenders did not reduce the number of re-arrests for sex offenses, nor did it have any demonstrable effect on the time between when sex offenders were released from prison and when they were re-arrested for any new offense, such as a drug, theft or a subsequent sex offense.

So while the public may find comfort in knowing that sex offenders in their community are registered and monitored, it may be a false sense of security.

Writing Assignment: What would you do with repeat sex offenders who repeatedly prey on children? Treat and release? Monitor in the community? Or keep them incarcerated until there is absolutely no question they will re-offend? Should sex offenders be treated differently than other criminals?

Source: Kristen Zgoba, Karen Bachar  “Sex Offender Registration and Notification: Research Finds Limited Effects in New Jersey” National Institute of Justice  April 2009

Myth or Reality?

Sex offenders who do their time are released into the community.

While many incarcerated sex offenders are released at the end of their prison terms, some are immediately subjected to a second term of confinement in a treatment facility. Why? Several states have enacted laws that permit officials to indefinitely confine presumably dangerous sex offenders, even after they have been convicted, sentenced to prison, and released. For example, a Kansas law permits additional incarceration of a sex offender if the state proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the offender is “likely to engage in predatory acts of violence.” The Supreme Court, in Kansas v. Hendricks, decided that since Kansas’ law was treatment-oriented (rather than punishment-oriented) it did not violate the Fifth Amendment’s double jeopardy prohibition.

Lawmakers in Minnesota are currently debating whether to allow a $90 million expansion of their civil commitment program. Since its creation 20 years ago, the program has put 551 men and one woman in confinement after their sentences ended. And that number is on the rise, making Minnesota the state with the most civilly committed sex offenders.

States are expanding their civil commitment laws, too. Drug addicts have been subjected to civil commitment, as have people (including juveniles) with mental disorders. This may seem like sound criminal justice policy, and perhaps it is, but it is at least mildly controversial to confine someone twice for the same offense. What’s more, it is expensive. States have to spend more on civilly-committed offenders than prison inmates to ease critics’ concerns that the treatment facilities are simply prisons in disguise.

Writing Assignment: Find out if your state has a civil commitment law. Read the statute and determine which kinds of offenders are subjected to it and what procedures are used to confine them. If your state does not have a civil commitment law, find a nearby state that has one and make the same determinations.

Myth or Reality?

The crime rate is in decline.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) program, long considered the source of official crime data and trends, relies on reports from over 17,000 police departments around the United States. According to the UCR, crime rates have been in steep decline for the past decade despite a flagging economy and high unemployment. Now a recent study of more than a hundred retired New York Police Department captains and higher-ranking officers has put the accuracy of these data under scrutiny. According to a survey conducted by crime experts John Eterno and Eli Silverman, these former police commanders were under intense pressure to reduce crime. In order to placate hard-charging commissioners such as William Bratton, some local commanders manipulated crime statistics so it would appear that their efforts at crime control have been successful. How did they cheat? One method was to check eBay and other Web sites in order to find prices for items that had been reported stolen that were actually lower than the value provided by the crime victim. They would then use the lower values to reduce felony grand larcenies, crimes that are in the UCR, to misdemeanor petit larcenies that go unrecorded. Some commanders reported sending officers to crime scenes to persuade victims not to file complaints or alter crimes so they did not have to be reported to the FBI. For example, an attempted burglary must be reported but an illegal trespass is not.  While it is possible that the New York police administrators were under more pressure to reduce crime than their counterparts around the country, the fact that members of the largest police department in the U.S. may have fudged UCR data suggests that the decade-long crime drop may be more of a function of police reporting than an actual reduction in crime. How is it possible to reduce crime during a time of economic crisis, make believe it never happened?

Writing Assignment:  The police commanders in NY may have fudged the crime data because they were under pressure to bring the crime rate down. Write an essay discussing why police and other groups and/or individuals might benefit if they could prove that crime rates have actually been increasing.

Myth or Reality?

A State Can Legalize Marijuana

Some 700,000 Californians have signed an initiative to get the “Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010” on the November ballot.  If it becomes law, the Act would allow people 21 years old or older to “possess, cultivate, or transport marijuana for personal use.” Other states have either legalized medical marijuana or tried to enact their own laws that make the drug legal in one form or another. None have succeeded. Why?

Marijuana is illegal under federal law. It is a Schedule I drug (meaning that marijuana is viewed has being highly addictive and having no medical value) under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. Section 811). And since federal law supersedes state law via the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, it would be illegal for a state to legalize marijuana—for any reason.

Former President Bush used this as justification for having federal law enforcement agencies raid medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the country during the latter part of his term. The Obama administration announced in October 2009 that it would not arrest medical marijuana users who obeyed state laws. Importantly, though, California’s initiative is not limited to medical marijuana. It calls for legalization across the board. This runs flatly contrary to federal law.

Proponents of California’s initiative cite the age-old revenue generation argument in favor of legalization. They claim that California, which is by several measures the most cash-strapped state in the union, could benefit enormously from the taxation of marijuana. If the initiative becomes law, California may profit handsomely from legalization if the Obama administration retains its “hands off” stance, but nothing says a Republican won’t get elected in 2012, or even that the current administration could change its tune at some point down the road. For marijuana to become truly “legal,” federal law needs to change first.

Writing Assignment: Identify another area in which a state has attempted to legalize conduct that is illegal under federal law. What were the consequences of its efforts?

“Never Trust Your Relatives”

Myth or Reality?

Most murders are committed by people who are known to their victim. Should we trust our relatives?

Most of you probably remember Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, who won a silver medal in 1994 after being attacked and injured in a plot hatched by skating rival Tanya Harding. After her Olympic victory, Nancy had a very successful career in ice shows. Now a 40-year-old married mother of three, Kerrigan lives in Lynnfield, Massachusetts. She has been out of the news for quite some time. However, she recently vaulted into the media spotlight again when news services reported on January 24, 2010 that her father, Daniel Kerrigan had been killed in a violent struggle with his son, Nancy’s brother Mark. When police arrived at his home they found the 70-year-old Kerrigan passed out on the kitchen floor while the younger Kerrigan “appeared intoxicated, belligerent and combative.” Police had to use pepper spray in order to put him in handcuffs.

The Kerrigan case, much like the infamous 1989 Menendez Brothers case, and other examples of parricide, often give the impression that people kill family members on a routine basis. TV shows like Law and Order: SVU also contribute to the perception that a family member can be your worst enemy. A recent Law and Order: SVU episode, “Shadow” which aired on Jan. 13, 2010 focused on the death of a rich couple found murdered in their bed. It turns out that their daughter committed the crime in order to inherit their money.

Are these lurid news accounts and TV shows misleading? Is the murderous relative a myth? Not really. According to the most recent FBI data, 23 percent of murder victims (in cases where the assailant could be identified) were killed by a family member. In contrast, only 22 percent were killed by strangers; the rest were done in by acquaintances, neighbors, romantic partners, and so on. So should we be afraid of our parents, aunts, uncles, kids, wives and husbands? Unfortunately, the data tells us they can, indeed be our worst enemy.

Writing Assignment: Assume the role of a forensic psychologist for a moment and explain the psychological factors that drive people to commit parricide, or to murder someone they are supposed to love.