June 15, 2011 —  Subject: A.5661 (Weisenberg)/S.1521 (Klein)

(An act to amend the correction law, in relation to the definition of and information and information provided about sex offenders)

A.7950 (Miller)

(An act to amend the correction law, in relation to requiring level two sex offenders to register their employment address and relating to certain requirements of distribution to the subdirectory)

Position: Oppose

Pending before the New York State Assembly are two bills which will increase the already significant registration requirements and amount of publicly available information about registered sex offenders. A.5661/S.1521 would authorize local law enforcement to provide entities with vulnerable populations with the exact address of a Level 2 sex offender. A.7950 would require Level 2 sex offenders to register their employment address with law enforcement and would make the addresses available to any person via the Internet.

There is little evidence that sex offender registration and community notification regarding the registry have contributed to a decrease in sexual assaults. In fact, the only comprehensive study of the effectiveness of New York’s own registry and community notification system concluded that there was no overall decrease in arrest rates for sexual crimes after New York passed its sexual offender registration law, that registration laws fail to decrease re-arrest rates for convicted offenders, and that registration and notification laws do not deter future offenders.1 Studies of sex offender registry laws in New Jersey, Iowa and Washington have all concluded that the laws have no impact whatsoever in deterring future sexual attacks.2

Thus, because we believe that increasing the volume of information about a broader group of registered offenders to a wider circle of the community will not increase community safety and could likely lead to increased rates of reoffense, the NYCLU opposes this legislation.

Introduction

Lawmakers have an important role in protecting communities from sexual victimization. We do not doubt that the sponsors of these bills understand this duty and sincerely believe that these bills will strengthen community safety. Proponents of community notification and registration laws truly believe that sharing information about where registered sex offenders live and work will allow people to make informed decisions about where to go, which will lead to a decrease in sexual victimization.

Currently, all fifty states have “Megan’s Laws,” which require individuals convicted of various sexual offenses to register their addresses with local law enforcement after they are released from incarceration. In New York, all registered sex offenders must register their current addresses with the police and notify law enforcement whenever they move.3 Additional requirements vary depending on an assessment of the threat that a registered offender presents of reoffense. Accordingly, the higher the level and the higher the potential threat to public safety, the more reporting obligations an individual offender will have and the more information about that individual that will be made publicly available.

The most recent survey of New York’s sex offender laws concluded that “the limited effectiveness of registration and community notification laws may be due to the fact that these laws are largely based on commonly held myths and misconceptions regarding sexual offenses and sex offenders.”4 Registration and community notification requirements are premised on three related, but inaccurate, beliefs about sexual crimes: (1) communities will be safer if they have more information about who among them has been convicted of a sex offense; (2) registered offenders reoffend at a high rate; and, (3) registration and notification requirements enable individuals to make informed choices about how to protect themselves and their families from sexual violence. In fact, increasing community notification requirements is likely to have the counterintuitive effect of increasing the risk to public safety. Each of these issues is discussed in turn.

I. More Information does not Result in Safer Communities

Community notification laws are grounded in the belief that by informing the public of the locations of registered offenders, communities will be better able to protect children from sexual violence from strangers. Although a few child abductions by strangers received an inordinate amount of media attention, 93% of sexual assault victims under the age of 17 are assaulted not by a stranger, but by a family member or an acquaintance.5 Despite the common belief that most sexual assaults are the result of victims being attacked by strangers in public places, the overwhelming majority (70%) of sexual assaults take place not at a stranger’s home or in a public place, but within the residence of a victim.6 Community notification laws can overstate the threat of sexual assault posed by strangers, and lead families to feel safe because they know where registered offenders are living. As a result, families may ignore the fact that children are most likely to be sexually assaulted by people they already know and in their own homes.

Further, the information provided to communities about registered offenders often leaves families unable to use the information in a meaningful way. Sex offender registries typically list the sex offender’s name, address, and the crime for which they were convicted. They do not provide any information on how dangerous a registered offender is, or whether (or how) parents could protect their children. Parents have reported feeling anxious, confused, and overwhelmed after receiving information about registered offenders in their communities.7 Worse still, they are left feeling that their communities are filled with dangerous individuals, and helpless to protect their families.

II. Registered Sex Offenders do not Reoffend at a High Rate

Recidivism rates among sex offenders are in fact much lower than recidivism rates among people convicted of other felonies.8 One long-term study of 12,863 individuals convicted of committing sex crimes in New York found that just 2% of released inmates who served time for a sex offense were subsequently convicted of another sex crime.9 The most recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that only 3.3% of people convicted of violent sexual offenses against children were rearrested for a new sex crime within three years of their release (the time during which most re-arrests occur).10 In comparison, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that re-arrest rates for property offenders and drug offenders were 73.8% and 66.7%, respectively.11

The vast majority of people arrested for child sexual abuse are not repeat sex offenders, but first-time offenders.12 One study of sex offenders in New York found that 96% of people arrested for sexual crimes were first time offenders. The same study found that 94% of all arrests for child molestation were of first-time offenders.13 The majority of sexual crimes are not committed by individuals who previously committed sexual offenses and who are not subject to the registry and notification requirements.

III. Community Notification Laws do not Help People Make Informed Decisions

Registration requirements are not limited to individuals who committed serious crimes or individuals who present the greatest threat to public safety. Teenagers convicted of engaging in consensual sex with other teenagers are required to comply with registration and notification requirements as sex offenders.14 These individuals pose no threat to public safety, yet would be subject to ostracization from their communities if these bills were to pass. These laws will inundate communities with information about registered offenders living amongst them, when many of these former offenders simply do not pose a threat.

A.5661/S.1521 and A.7950 will make Level 2 offenders comply with the same address and work reporting and information-sharing requirements as Level 3 offenders. Level 2 offenders ostensibly do not pose the same level of threat to public safety as Level 3 offenders.15 Level 2 offenders have been determined to have engaged in less violent crimes, they are less likely to have committed crimes against children, and have been determined to present a lower overall likelihood of offending again. If they presented a significant threat to the community, then the board of examiners would have accordingly classified them as a Level 3 offender.

This change will begin to erode the distinctions between Level 2 and Level 3 offenders. As a practical matter, subjecting Level 2 offenders to the same requirements as Level 3 offenders results in no distinction between the two designations. Because Level 2 offenders do not raise the same concerns as Level 3 offenders, it does not make sense to subject them to the same requirements.

IV. Inappropriate, Broad Dissemination of Information about Registered Sex Offenders can lead to a Decrease in Public Safety

While community notification laws are intended to lower recidivism rates, they may actually have the opposite effect. Such laws often result in registered offenders losing their jobs or homes, being subjected to threats and harassment from neighbors, and being subjected to property damage.16 Registered offenders have reported that the increased stress from such disruptions interfere with their ability to recover.17

Requiring detailed employment information to be posted on the Internet may deter potential employers from hiring a registered offender because they do not want to draw attention to their businesses. Thus, they may be more likely to discriminate in hiring a registered offender. In addition to illegally violating New York Corrections Law,18 such an outcome makes it even more difficult for individuals who have served sentences for their crimes to reintegrate into society.19 Bills such as S.1521/A.5661 and A.7950 can result in lifelong penalties that permanently impact a released offender’s reintegration. Moreover, research has found that sex offenders who are gainfully employed are less likely to violate the terms of their probation.20 Counterproductively, community notification laws can lead to a decrease in safety. Moreover, A.7950 will have a disparate impact on registered offenders who work in a variety of short-term, lower-wage jobs because these individuals change employers more frequently and will be subjected to a great number of reporting requirements.

Research suggests that the best way to promote public safety is by taking preventative measures – such as ensuring stable housing and providing treatment and mental health services – to those convicted of sexual crimes.21 Supportive services which enable individuals convicted of sexual offenses to work and return to their lives may reduce recidivism amongst the small percentage of registered offenders who actually pose a risk of reoffense.

Conclusion

Neither A.5661/S.1521 nor A.7950 will result in communities being better able to protect themselves from sexual violence. Indeed, increasing the number of registered offenders about whom communities are notified, as well as the volume of information about them has the tendency to decrease public safety. For these reasons, NYCLU strongly opposes these bills and urges the legislature to reject them.

Footnotes:

[1] Jeffrey Sandler, Does a Watched Pot Boil? A Time Series Analysis of New York State’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law, Psychology, Public Policy and Law (Nov. 2008).

[2] See Kristen Zgoba, Megan’s Law: Assessing the Practical and Monetary Efficacy, New Jersey Department of Corrections (2008); Geneva Adkins, The Iowa Sex Offender Registry and Recidivism, Iowa Department of Human Rights (2000); Donna Schram, Community Notification: A Study of Offender Characteristics and Recidivism, Washington State Institute for Public Policy (1995);

[3] See New York Correction Law § 168-c.

[4] Sander, supra note 1.

[5] Howard N. Snyder, Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident and Offender Characteristics, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2000).

[6] Id.

[7] See Human Rights Watch, No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the US (2007).

[8] Id.

[9] See Leslie Kellam, 2001 Releases: Three-Year Post Release Follow Up, State of New York Department of Correctional Services (2002).

[10] See R. Karl Hanson & Monique T. Bussiere, Predicting Relapse: A meta-analysis of sexual offender recidivism studies, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (1998).

[11] Patrick Langan, Recidivism of prisoners released in 1994, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2002).

[12] See Sandler, supra note 1.

[13] Id.

[14] See New York Correction Law § 168-a.

[15] Prior to being released from prison after conviction for a registerable sex offense, sex offenders are classified as a Level 1, 2, or 3 registered sex offender. The determination is made by a board of examiners, who consider each offender on an individual basis to assess their potential public safety threat. The board looks (among other factors) at the nature of the crime that was committed, whether the individual has a mental illness which makes them more likely to engage in predatory sexual offenses, whether their crime was violent, and their response to treatment in making such a determination. See New York Correction Law § 168-l (5). The classification level (and threat of reoffense) correlates with escalating disclosure and information-sharing requirements. Level 1 offenders are determined to pose a low risk of repeat offense; level 2 offenders pose a moderate level; and level 3 offenders are classified in such a way where the risk of reoffense is high and “there exists a threat to public safety.” See New York Correction Law § 168-l. New York’s Risk Assessment Guidelines, the instrument used to evaluate and assess sex offenders, are seriously flawed. See Laurie Guidry, “Doe v. Pataki: Court Offers 9,000 Sex Offenders Opportunity to Appeal Risk Level, The Alliance (Quarterly Publication of the New York State Alliance of Sex Offender Service Providers), vol. 7, issue 1, Winter 2004/2005. They were developed prior to scientific research that establishes clear correlations between particular characteristics and behaviors of an offender and a propensity to re-offend. Courts are beginning to note that New York’s assessment system is flawed. See, e.g., People v. MacFarland, 29 Misc.3d 1206(A) at *12, *15 (N.Y.Co. 2010) (“RAI is not a valid risk assessment instrument” and it produces results which are “obviously irrational”).

[16] See Human Rights Watch, No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the US (2007).

[17] Jill Levenson, The Effect of Megan’s Law on Sex Offender Reintegration, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Vol. 21, no. 1 (Feb. 2005).

[18] New York Corrections Law § 752 (It is illegal for a private or public employer to discriminate against an employee because that person has “been previously convicted of one or more criminal offenses, or by reason of a finding of lack of good moral character.”).

[19] See Acosta v. New York City Dept. of Educ., 16 N.Y.3d 309, 320 (2011) (“barring discrimination against those who have paid their debt to society [facilitates] their efforts to obtain gainful employment and benefits the community as a whole.”).

[20] See Reagan Daly, Treatment and Reentry Practices for Sex Offenders, Vera Institute of Justice (2008).

[21] See Colorado Department of Public Safety, Report on Safety Issues Raised by Living Arrangements For and Location of Sex Offenders in the Community (2004).

 

Stay informed

The New York Civil Liberties Union is a state affiliate of the ACLU

Learn more about ACLU National