People are Afraid for their Children
A predatory child molester is a parent’s worst nightmare. The idea that someone who has committed a sexual offense against a child could be loose in the neighborhood is a truly frightening prospect for the folks who live there. The reflex reaction is to say that if we can prevent one child from being sexually assaulted then any preventive measure is justified. Likewise, the reasoning goes we should just lock up sex offenders and throw away the key just to be on the safe side.
Prison sentences for first time offenders guilty only of viewing child pornography have tended to vary widely but to be often extreme. The average person tends to conclude that any act such as viewing child pornography is surely going to lead to offenses against children. Such conclusions are often drawn purely on gut level fear rather than any knowledge of the facts.
The available research does not indicate that the act of viewing child pornography leads to committing sex offenses even though most actual child molesters do view child pornography. Some have even argued that viewing child pornography can be a less damaging substitute for child sexual abuse and can therefore be somehow useful for those who have those inclinations.
Nevertheless, a conviction on possession of child pornography alone can in itself lead to the offender being placed on the state’s sex offender registry. Local law enforcement may also notify their communities about the presence of a registered sex offender under certain circumstances.
In recent years the internet has allowed child pornography to become a rapidly increasing problem. In 1995 about 50 people per year were prosecuted on child-pornography charges in the U.S. Currently the number is about 2,500 per year. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that images of pre-pubescent children are becoming more prevalent and are increasingly violent and sadistic.
Reasons to be Less Afraid
- Residency restrictions may not make communities safer. An article entitled “Studies Question Effectiveness of Sex Offender Laws,” reviewed two studies which showed that registration does little to increase public safety. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-08/uocp-sqe083011.phreviewed
- Most convicted sex offenders do not re-offend. Most estimates of recidivism rates for sex offenders are under 20% which is lower than for other types of crimes.
- Most sexual offenses against children are not committed by strangers. The NY State Criminal Justice Department in their “Myths and Facts” about sex offenses reports that for offenses against victims age 16 and under, 93% were assaulted by someone they knew, usually a family member or acquaintance. http://www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/nsor/som_mythsandfacts.htm
- Treatment of sex offenders is thought to be effective. According to the above link, studies show a reduced rate of repeat sex offenses for offenders who successfully complete their treatment goals. Treatment with youthful offenders appears to be particularly effective.
There is also growing concern about the possibility that excessive restrictions on registered sex offenders as to where they can live, where they can go, whether they can be on social media sites, GPS monitoring, etc. may lead to their lives becoming so disadvantaged that they are actually at greater risk to reoffend. In other words, where their life options are so narrowed they may be hindered from leading a normal life even if they start out motivated to do so.
What to Do
On the whole I believe that the lesson is that rather than trying to increase the controls on those offenders who have been convicted, we should channel our anger and fear into efforts to catch and treat young sex offenders, place increased emphasis on treating all sex offenders both incarcerated and in the community, and continue preventive efforts to increase public awareness and awareness on the part of youngsters about the prevalence of and dangers associated with internet pornography. We need to focus on efforts to prevent children and adults from becoming either sex addicts or sex objects, either predators or prey.