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The Podium

Punish the sex offender — not the entire offender group

The recent arrest of John Burbine, a Level 1 registered sex offender charged with molesting 13 babies and toddlers, has understandably ignited the emotions of Massachusetts residents. If these heinous and depraved charges are proven in court than the full weight of the law should be brought down upon this individual.

What should not happen is retribution against the entire population of law-abiding registered sex offenders residing in the state, most of whom are just focused on rebuilding their lives as good citizens and providers for their families. Punish the offender — not the entire offender group.

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The recent announcement by House Speaker Robert DeLeo that he is going to re-examine stalled legislation that would result in the state conforming to the federal Adam Walsh Act suggests that an outbreak of sex offender panic might strike Beacon Hill. Many enlightened states, including New York and California, have rejected AWA t on the basis of sound principles of sex offender management and Massachusetts should continue to do likewise.

The history of sex offender laws in the United States has been to react to rare, high profile, and heinous crimes, while ignoring the fact that sex offenders have one of the lowest recidivism rates of all offender groups in the criminal justice system. The myth of high recidivism is pervasive. A 2010 survey by the US Department of Justice found that 75 percent of the population believed that sex crime recidivism was greater than 50 percent while only 3 percent of the population believed that it was less than 25 percetn — even though every major broad based study conducted over the last decade has shown it to be substantially below 25 percent.

One of the most recent studies entitled “A Multi-State Recidivism Study Using Static-99R and Static-2002 Risk Scores and Tier Guidelines from the Adam Walsh Act” (Zgoba, Miner, Knight, Letourneau, Levenson, Thornton) was released in November and found recidivism at 10 percent after 10 years.

This study focused on the relative predictability of recidivism risk between scientifically tested actuarial risk assessment instruments and the AWA requirement to assign risk tiers based solely on the conviction. The study found, “Actuarial measures and existing state tiering systems both showed better predictive validity than AWA tiers.” This finding confirmed common knowledge that people who commit the same crime do not pose the same risk of re-offending. The crime is only one of many offender and victim characteristics that need to be evaluated. This is one of the reasons why the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA), the nation’s largest association representing sex offender treatment professionals opposes AWA.

With state tiering systems performing better than AWA, Massachusetts shouldn’t scrap a system that works just because a Level 1 sex offender committed heinous crimes. Low risk was never meant to mean no risk. Just as most high risk offenders will never commit another sex crime, some low risk offenders will.

The punitive impact on law-abiding former offenders of potentially having their risk level raised through AWA can be a life-destroying event, often resulting in their presence on the public registry website following years, even decades, of offense-free tenure in the community. Experience has shown that in other states that have expanded its public registry many law-abiding former offenders have lost jobs and become subject to residency restrictions that have forced them to move. Such actions not only impact registrants, but their family members -including minor children — as well who suffer the collateral consequences of the registry. Listing on the website should be reserved only for those who have been deemed truly dangerous.

It is easy to understand the emotional appeal of the “if it just saves one child” argument, but basing public policy on the rare horrific crime committed by one registered sex offender, while ignoring the extensive research of the entire former sex offender population, does not result in a fair and reasoned criminal justice system. The Massachusetts Legislature should consider the ramifications of adopting AWA in a deliberative manner and avoid rushing to judgment in a knee jerk response to Burbine’s atrocities.

Shana Rowan is executive director of USA FAIR — USA Families Advocating an Intelligent Registry.
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