October 19, 2010

Study: Sex offender law changes may not have boosted community safety

10-19-2010 South Carolina:

Does South Carolina’s sexual offender registry help cut down the number of new sex crimes? Does it decrease the odds that people listed on it will reoffend?

A group of researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina spent the past five years examining those questions and outlined its findings in a report released recently.

They found that the state’s sexual offender registration and notification laws, enacted in 1995, inadvertently led to changes in the way sex crimes are prosecuted — changes that could actually “reduce community safety,” according to the report.

After 1995, researchers saw a spike in the number of plea bargains for sex crime defendants who plead to non-sex charges. Defendants who are guilty of sex crimes, but who ultimately pleaded to lesser charges, are not subjected to registration and could face lighter sentencing. Researchers can’t say for sure why the laws led to changes in prosecution.

Among their findings:

• Before 1995, defendants stood a 9 percent chance of getting their charges reduced from a sex crime to a lesser offense, such as aggravated assault or criminal domestic violence, the report said. After the law went into effect, that figure rose to about 15 percent. When the registry went online in 1999, it jumped to 19 percent.

• After 1999, when the registry went online, defendants tried for sex crimes were acquitted at higher rates compared with the previous nine years, the study’s authors said.

• Among both adults and juveniles, the laws had no apparent effect on recidivism rates, which were similar for listed and non-listed offenders.

• Plea bargains for juvenile offenders more than doubled after the registry laws hit the books.

• Prosecutors dismissed juvenile sex crime case at higher rates after the law took effect.

• In comparing data from the five years leading up to the law with the 10 years that followed it, researchers made one finding in support of registering sex offenders: doing so was a deterrent that averted about three new first-time sex crimes a month among adults.
Elizabeth Letourneau, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at MUSC who led the study, said policymakers should find ways to improve the registration and notification laws rather than focus on the one bright spot.

“Our goal is to prevent sex crimes,” said Letourneau, also a victim’s advocate. “However well-intentioned it may be, this law doesn’t do that very effectively.”

South Carolina’s sexual offender laws are among the toughest in the country, requiring lifetime registration for both adults and juveniles convicted of sex crimes, Letourneau said.

The registry must be continually updated and monitored. Officers are dispatched to registrants’ homes to verify their address. Maintaining the registry, which lists more than 10,000 people, costs the state millions of dollars, Letourneau said.

The MUSC researchers propose changing state laws to limit the amount of time an offender would remain on it. For example, some states release convicts from the list after 15 years, Letourneau said.

Time limits could free up money to focus on high-risk offenders, she said.

Letourneau said she is particularly troubled that some of those offenders, who may end up with non-sex crime charges, will not get the punishment, specialized treatment and supervision they need.

“If they’re being charged with non-sex offenses or being acquitted outright, the community and the victims are not served,” she said.

Researchers submitted the report to the U.S. Department of Justice last month.

MUSC’s legislative liaison, Mark Sweatman, said he plans to discuss it with the S.C. attorney general, state legislators and officials from the State Law Enforcement Division in the coming month. ..Source.. RENEE DUDLEY

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