Friday, February 10, 2017

Kare 11's Botched Investigation Into Sex Offenders

To anyone living in Minnesota, Kare 11 is a household name in news. They are largely a reputable company with many investigations and news articles under their belt. However, a recent investigation into sex offenders, and the follow-up to that investigation, should appall you. Why? Because their investigation not only was extremely incomplete, but touts a single example as the legal norm in Minnesota for sex offenders, and argues that all sex offenders are dangerous. In fact, their opening headline for the primary investigation reads:

KARE 11 Investigates: Minnesota's Secret Sex Offenders

Hundreds Of Predators?

If you read very far into their report, however, you see that "hundreds of child sexual predators" includes a fair amount of juveniles who received a stay of adjudication and 210 other adults 22 years old and older. A stay of adjudication means that an offender must complete a series of requirements, and their crime is not available in public databases unless they do not complete the requirements.

Some of the requirements, for example, are to complete a lengthy probation sentence and complete sex offender treatment (treatment which usually requires at least two years to complete). Standard probation requirements for sex offenders typically involves no contact with anyone under 18 years old, and no pornography. 

What their investigation completely ignores is that Minnesota is home to 17,654 registered sex offenders as of December 6th, 2016. The ability to find out just how many of those 17,654 offenders are considered "high-risk" by the state is challenging at best. To the best of my recall, the amount of level 3 sex offenders in the state does not exceed 2,000 people. 210 people, compared with these numbers, is miniscule. The worst thing about risk level in Minnesota is that it is not determined by an actual risk-assessment administered by a trained psychologist: It is determined based entirely on Minnesota's own criteria, which was developed by studying sex offenders released from prison.

To the average person, that may sound like a good thing... until you realize that many low-level sex offenders, including those convicted of child sexual abuse and sexual abuse material crimes, are frequently given probation if they are a first-time offender. The screening tool that Minnesota uses to determine the risk level of its sex offenders does not have as much reliability as other screening tools, like the Static-99R. More work is needed.

What About Recidivism And Megan's Law?

To make these matters worse, Minnesota's Department of Corrections has done two "recent" studies on sex offenders that would matter to the average person: The 2007 report on recidivism, and the report on Megan's Law in 2008. Both of these reports are as flawed as the system they use to assign risk level: The 2007 report on recidivism looks at 3,166 sex offenders released from a correctional facility (read: prison) between 1990 and 2002, which means their report does not look at the vast majority of sex offenders, only those released from prison. 

The report discussing Megan's Law is also extremely narrow in its scope, and contains methodological errors that would shame any statistician: They conclude, based on their study of recidivism rates of 155 level three offenders subject to notification and 125 who were not, that notification has a strong deterrent effect and reduces recidivism. They essentially claim that correlation proves causation, with no control methods used to distinguish  between the results of these groups. 

Overall Sex Offender Statistics

The statistics discussed in the aforementioned reports are shockingly incomplete, and give the public just enough data to shut up. However, a plethora of other studies have also been done on sex offenders. You have heard me mention them here numerous times: A study done in New York on 21 years of arrest data found that 95% of new sexual crimes were committed not by registered sex offenders, but first-time offenders new to the criminal justice system. Other studies have yielded similar results, usually finding that at least 90% of sex crimes are committed by first-time offenders. This means that the numerous processes we have to address sex offenders attempts to answer approximately 5-10% of new sex crime

That study, combined with the numerous meta-analyses done on sex offender recidivism, point to the idea that sex offenders are not nearly as dangerous as people believe: Around 12% of sex offenders will re-offend with a sexual crime, and around 30-40% will reoffend with any crime. That contrasts to the national average for criminal recidivism being around 60-75%. It has been said in media articles on the subject that the only crime with a lower recidivism rate is murder. 


I know from previous experience with the Minnesota legislature that Minnesota spends a few hundred thousand on preventing sexual assault, and I learned recently that we spend $93 million on managing and tracking sexual offenders. I believe this is very imbalanced, and makes it clear that our focus is not on preventing sexual crimes, but on reacting where they do occur.

The Take-Away

Kare 11 focuses on a miniscule fraction of 5% of new sex criminals in the making. Already, some of Minnesota's legislators, including Gov. Mark Dayton and Rep. Tony Cornish are promising to fix how stays of adjudication are used. But nothing is being promised to address and prevent 95% of new sex crime, which is not committed by sex offenders, but by those new to the criminal justice system. Minnesota, like so many other states, is focusing its efforts on endlessly punishing those who pose the smallest amount of risk in terms of future sex crimes, and focusing next to nothing on preventing sexual crimes before they can happen. Indeed, Minnesota spends $93 million a year on SORN policies, and only $300,000 on sexual assault prevention. Our priorities are not on keeping the public safe.

As an advocate pushing the end of child sexual abuse before it can happen, I am outraged that not only Minnesota's leaders, but also its major media outlets, are doing nothing about the majority of sexual crimes in Minnesota. We are weak: The only statement worth supporting in Kare 11's investigation is that Minnesota has created an atmosphere of legal tolerance of sexual violence. While that statement was intended to address how sex offenders are treated in the legal system, I think that statement is used far too narrowly. 

I am ashamed to call myself a Minnesotan.

Alternative Solutions

There are several solutions that many of my readers may already be familiar with, like knowing the facts and the warning behaviors in potential abusers, and many of my other suggestions center around reforming sexual offender laws to be more effective at protecting the public. Some of them concern educating families, and educating children.

Sex offender registration needs reform, primarily because it lumps low-risk and no-risk offenders in with high-risk and recidivist sex offenders, which means law enforcement has a harder job investigating sex crimes. Instead, it would be best to use the money currently allocated to the sex offender registry in each state to perform psychological risk assessments on each offender. These risk assessments would divide only into low and high risk. These assessments would be done by an independent board of expert psychologists in each state, and only those who score as high-risk will be registered with law enforcement. The specific statute being charged and convicted should have no bearing on risk level, and the circumstances of the offense and risk assessments should be used as the determining factor for risk. As risk level and offender registration are not punitive measures, they could only be used as a factor when determining a criminal sentence. 

The trend in research identifies several issues with publicly identifying sex offenders in the community, commonly known as sex offender notifications. Many of these issues can be solved by only notifying the community in certain special circumstances: Multiple sex crimes, a high-risk score on risk assessment, release from prison, and two or more psychological disorders could be some of the criteria. The compliance patrols that are currently aimed at low-risk and no-risk offenders could instead be aimed at those who meet enough criteria to warrant public notification. Not all high-risk offenders would warrant public notification, only those who meet enough criteria would qualify. Anyone subject to sex offender notifications would be incarcerated for life if they commit another offense of any kind.

The research surrounding residency restrictions is nearly unanimous in saying that they do not keep the public safer, and in some cases, can lead to increased homelessness. This increased homelessness has been shown to increase risk factors for further offending, as well as making it more difficult for offenders to reestablish themselves as productive members of society. Therefore, residency restrictions should be completely abolished except for those warranting community notification, as covered in the heading "sex offender notifications". As such, any such offender committing another offense of any kind would be subject to a life sentence.

In many states, sex offenders are restricted from random things that do not have any effect on public safety. For example, sex offenders in some states cannot use the internet, or cannot use certain aspects of the internet, such as for gaming, social media, or even commenting on the news. In other places, sex offenders cannot participate in Halloween or attend the state fair. As 95% of new sex crime is perpetrated by those without criminal convictions, these restrictions do nothing to keep the public safer and put onerous enforcement requirements on supervising corrections officers and law enforcement that could be better spent detecting new sex crimes or educating the community regarding safety and prevention. 

Some funding originally directed at sex offender registration in the past must be directed to educating families about appropriate safety plans, facts around child sexual abuse and sexual assault, warning behaviors in potential abusers, resources for individualized help on a variety of topics, and normative vs. atypical sexual behavior in children and teenagers. This education plan would be created using accurate terminology, research-based factoids, and produced by experts in these areas. 

In line with the aforementioned education of families, schools and families should have access to age-appropriate sexual education covering a wide variety of topics to prepare each child for life in the adult world. Such education should be covered both at school and at home, and the standards for this education should be a principled skeleton of topics. It would then be decided on the local level how to cover each principle, so that each community has a say in practicing this education. These principles should include:

  • Legal and ethical specifics on the subject of consent
  • Anatomical health practices including STD's, safe sex, and physical boundaries
  • How to form and keep social and emotional boundaries
  • Resources that a child can use for a variety of situations including but not limited to, sexual abuse, mental health disorders, physical health concerns, and relationship health.

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