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Treatment for sex offenders can protect community

But the problem of readmitting perpetrators to society will never be solved if we allow misplaced fear and paranoia to guide us

OPINION, By Pamela D. Schultz; Newsday [Melville, NY], December 3, 2006

The hunt for released sex offenders, in particular child molesters, has become a moral panic, a mass-mediated wave of irrational public fear. Public policy is based on the idea that child molesters lurk in every neighborhood, playground, schoolyard and public park.

In Suffolk County, for instance, a law banning sex offenders from living less than a quarter-mile from places where children congregate has now been joined by legislation limiting the placement of registered sex offenders to one per dwelling and requiring that victims or guardians be informed when an offender eludes his probation officer. There is also a proposal being floated to conduct random address checks.

In Albany, the State Legislature is wrestling with a bill that would send the worst sex offenders to psychiatric facilities at the end of their prison sentence. At the federal level, this past summer the Adam Walsh Protection Act of 2006 expanded the federal Sex Offender Registry, instituted broad levels of Internet surveillance and increased the penalties for child sexual abuse.

Twenty-one states - including New York - use GPS tracking to keep an eye on offenders. Some, such as Florida, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma, require lifetime monitoring, even after a sentence has expired.

By ordinary standards of civil rights in this country, even for convicted criminals, these are radical measures. They stem from the perception that we are inundated with sex offenders and that all convicted child molesters are habitual, violent and predatory, on the prowl for their next victims.

The reality, painful as it is, falls far short of that.

As of Sept. 30, there were 8,752 Level 2 offenders (moderate risk) and 5,868 Level 3 offenders (highest risk) on New York State's Sex Offender Registry - in a total population of more than 19 million. Child molesters cannot be hiding beneath every rock; there aren't enough of them.

The problem is manageable, given time and resources. We need to calm the hysteria, however, if we want to effectively combat the crime.

Community notification, GPS devices and residency restrictions might be aimed at making communities safer, but unless we use them wisely, they may actually create a more dangerous environment because they stem from unrealistic stereotypes.

First, most convicted child molesters are not dirty old men lurking in playgrounds or sociopaths who randomly kidnap and kill their victims. Physically violent abusers who prey on strangers are the minority. Research shows that 90 percent of child molestation occurs within families or by someone the victim already knows.

By focusing all our attention on 10 percent of the offenders, we ignore a more likely source of danger to our children: potential predators closer to home - fathers, mothers, siblings, friends.

Second, such stopgap measures as community notification and GPS may seem economical in the short run, but they divert attention from more effective ways to avoid repeat offenses. Contrary to popular perception, for example, convicted sex offenders actually have lower rates of recidivism than other offenders.

According to the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, untreated sex offenders sentenced to prison have a recidivism rate of 18.5 percent, compared with around 25 percent for drug offenses and 30 percent for violent offenses.

Intense psychological counseling has been shown to lower sex offenders' recidivism quite effectively. Although treatment cuts recidivism of rapists by a few percent, treatment can cut the rate of recidivism in child molesters by up to one half.

New York State has a six-month in-prison sex offender treatment program that serves more than 1,000 each year. But this should be just the first step in what needs to be a lifetime of treatment.

The reality is that most offenders will be released into the community. If the intent is to protect children and prevent future victims, we need to use notification and monitoring to supplement treatment programs, not to supplant them.

When offenders are released, communities need to support offenders with opportunities for continued therapy. Not only does intensive treatment work, it can be significantly less expensive for taxpayers than long-term incarceration.

It costs about $22,000 per year, excluding treatment, to incarcerate an offender. Community supervision and treatment can cost between $5,000 and $15,000 per year.

But community-based treatment programs can save more than just money. When communities reject convicted offenders by isolating them or driving them to disappear from the system, the price may be paid in potential victims.

There are various hypotheses as to what motivates child molesters, but generally experts agree that offenders tend to exhibit problems with self-esteem, loneliness and depression.

The FBI divides child molesters into two groups: preferential and situational offenders.

Preferential offenders have a fixed attraction to children.
Situational offenders molest children during periods of intense stress and frustration.

Many convicted child molesters fit the situational category. Imagine the psychological pressure on such a convicted child molester who moves into a neighborhood and is greeted by a public outcry. Despised and alienated, the offender might be driven back to the behavior that once brought him comfort.

If we wish to use community notification, GPS and residency requirements as a means of preventing sex offenders' behavior rather than merely as additional forms of punishment, then we must use these tools to help rehabilitate, not ostracize them.

Many of the offenders I have interviewed say they welcome monitoring because they know they need help to control their behavior. If the purpose of monitoring and notification is to pinpont those moments when the offenders need outside help, these tools can truly add to the community's safety.

As a mother, and a sexual abuse survivor, I understand the source of our fear when it comes to child molesters. But paranoia and misinformation will not protect our children.

As one incarcerated child molester observed to me,

"I know I need help. I'm going to get out soon. If Megan's Law and monitoring meant that people could keep an eye on me, to help me help myself, then I'd be all for it. But instead, I feel like I'm going to have to hide, and in the end, that's not going to help anybody."

--Pamela D. Schultz is associate professor of communication studies at Alfred University and author of "Not Monsters: Analyzing the Stories of Child Molesters."

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