Monday, February 15, 2016

Why does SORNA matter to primary prevention?

SORNA? What?

SORNA, the acronym for the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (a catch-all term used to describe the multiple laws that created and expanded registration, and created community notification), is a topic of much contention. Many people discuss it with varying perspectives. I often, when I comment on news articles to inform people of the facts surrounding these issues, discuss recidivism rates of sex offenders and the proportion of new sex offenses committed by first-time offenders to those on the registry. That information is also linked at the side of this blog. But why is it important?

Recidivism: What is it, what does it mean, and why is it important?

Recidivism, which is the criminal justice term for re-offending, is a device that typically refers to someone who has previously been arrested for a crime being arrested again for another crime. It does not usually refer to a reconviction, but a rearrest. As such, it is not a completely accurate measurement because it would ballpark a slightly higher number. After all, some who are arrested are not convicted. On the topic of sexual offenses, its typical inaccuracy should theoretically be compensated for because of underreporting.

There are obvious flaws to using recidivism data to accurately state how many criminals are arrested for a new crime- underreporting and the fact that the data only studies rearrests, for example. However, it is likely to be the most accurate tool for the purpose that it serves, which is to get a general understanding of how often criminals engage in further delinquency. It serves as an important tool to measure whether or not people convicted of certain crimes repeat those certain crimes, other crimes, so that corrections departments can respond accordingly.

There are a variety of studies that have been done on sex offender recidivism. The metastudy linked on the side of this blog found a sexual recidivism rate of 13%, while other meta-analyses have found 11.5%. The United States Justice Department found a 5% recidivism rate in 2002 and a 13% recidivism rate in 2012.

Who commits crimes? Why is that important?

SORNA is essentially based on the idea that sex offenders generally do commit further sex crimes, and that those arrested for new sex crimes are registered sex offenders. The original concept of sex offender registration was that by making law enforcement aware of who sex offenders are, they have tools to investigate other sex crimes, while the concept behind notification (registration is only visible to law enforcement while notification is visible to the public) is that the public can protect themselves against sex offenders by knowing who they are.

Thus, it is vitally important to the effectiveness of SORNA to know who commits new sex crimes. Are they in fact sex offenders? No. One study from New York tells us that 95% of new sex crimes are committed by first-time offenders. In criminal justice, a first-time offender is someone new to the criminal justice system. So their finding means that 5% of registered sex offenders commit new sex crimes.

Connection: What do those numbers mean for SORNA?

If 86% of sex offenders do not repeat their crimes, and 95% of new sex crimes are committed by first-time offenders, then it means that SORNA's effectiveness is extremely limited to affecting a much smaller portion of sex offenders. If Karl Hanson's meta-analyses on the subject are to be believed, and their studies firmly establish that they do know what they are doing, then we have reliable and accurate risk-assessment tools to know when a sex offender is at high risk for reoffending, and when they are not. However, SORNA on the federal level does not require the use of these assessments and treats every sex offender equally, as if they are all high-risk.

Obviously, this is a problem because it means tax money is being spent to monitor every single sex offender, when it is certain sex offenders who are in actual need of being monitored. It also means that the focus is on the wrong group of people: If 95% of new offenses are by new criminals, then the focus should not be on those who have committed sex offenses, but on those who are at risk of doing so. The focus, according to the raw numbers, should be on primary prevention and ensuring that those at risk do not commit a sexual crime.

The reason I use the 13% statistic and not the more-reliable 11.5% statistic is that recidivism rates, given underreporting, are low. Obviously, the bigger the sample pool, the more reliable the statistic because the more the sample represents the group of people it is sampling from. Some have accused me of using biased data: I would venture a guess that recidivism rates on this subject are indeed higher than those found in studies. However, short of every victim reporting it every single time, which is unrealistic for many reasons, they are the best data that is available.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated to ensure a safe environment to discuss the issues and difficult content in this blog.