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How well do you know your neighbors?

Statistics say sex offenders not more likely to commit more crimes

POSTED: March 7, 2010 12:30 a.m.
How dangerous is the registered sex offender living in your neighborhood?

Local anecdotal evidence and national studies indicate that the risk may not be as great as some believe.

In Hall County, there are 223 registered sex offenders living and working throughout the county, convicted of everything from aggravated child molestation and rape to statutory rape and sexual battery. In recent years, they have been restricted from residing near schools, playgrounds, churches, swimming pools and other places where children congregate.

Sheriff's officials and probation officers often drop in for unannounced visits with sex offenders and can search their homes without a warrant. A new law requires sex offenders to give the officers who supervise them their computer log-ins and passwords.

Georgia's sex offender registry was created in 1996 as part of the nationwide "Megan's Law" campaign, prompted by the 1994 sexual assault and murder of a 7-year-old New Jersey girl. The parents of Megan Kanka said they were unaware that the convicted sex offender who killed their daughter lived across the street from them.

But Megan's case and other high-profile crimes are atypical among sex crimes against children, experts say. The majority of child molestations are committed by relatives or close family friends.

"It's uncles, cousins, brothers, stepfathers," said Gary Holstad, director of Family Recovery, a local office that provides court-ordered counseling for sex offenders. "It's quite a low percentage where it would be a stranger offense."

In Hall County, no registered sex offender has been arrested on a new sex offense since the registry started nearly 15 years ago, Hall County Sheriff's officials said.

And a recent study concluded that the recidivism, or re-offense, rate among sex offenders appears to be no greater than the rate for other convicted criminals.

"Sex offender registration and notification laws are based on the assumption that sex offenders are more likely to recidivate than other offenders," according to a recent report by Arkansas Crime Information Center. "The research on the validity of this assertion is very mixed."

The Center for Sex Offender Management said the idea that sex offenders are more likely to commit new offenses is "one of the biggest myths about sex offenders."

Dr. Jeffery Walker, a professor of criminology at the University of Arkansas and author of the recent report, said sex offender registry laws are based on "really good political rationales, but if you start looking at the reality, it doesn't hold a lot of water.

"We typically do things on kind of knee-jerk reactions," Walker said. "Most of the sex offender laws have some poor child's name attached to them ... there's this emotional response. They don't look at the unintended consequences of the laws."

Those unintended consequences are the residency restrictions that may result in sex offenders "pooling" together in areas of a county where they can live, possibly preventing them from living with family who could provide support, or driving them underground out of frustration, Walker said.

Holstad said the registry's many restrictions can make life "unbearable" for sex offenders and severely hinder their efforts at rehabilitation.

"Sex offenders have always had this stigma that nothing could ever be fixed or changed about them," Holstad said. "It was almost guaranteed that they would re-offend as soon as they had their first chance. That is so far from accurate."

Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh points out that many crimes against children go unreported, and so getting an accurate accounting of recidivism among sex offenders is not possible.

"There are many more criminal offenses than those that come to the attention of law enforcement," Darragh said.

Darragh said sex offender registries have been most useful in informing the public.

"They've made a significant difference in being able to know where these sex offenders live and work so that we can as a society keep tabs on them and keep our children safe," Darragh said.

The registry is a useful tool for law enforcement officials, who can look at the list first when investigating crimes against children, said Capt. Woodrow Tripp, commander of the Hall County Sheriff's Criminal Investigation Division.

"It's good to know where your bad guys are," Tripp said. "I wish we had registries for burglars and car thieves, too."

Registries may also deter sex offenders from committing new crimes, authorities said.

If a crime occurs in a sex offender's neighborhood, "they know the police are likely to come knocking on their door pretty fast," Darragh said.

Tripp believes the registry "absolutely" serves as a deterrent.

"They're probably among the most scrutinized people," Tripp said. "There's always that threat of going back to jail hanging over their heads. This is a group of people who have very little room to slip into the shadows."

Holstad, the counselor, said he can't blame people for "worrying and not liking these offenses.

"You can't take away their right to be unhappy about what happened," Holstad said. "But I don't see them as being a specific danger. People are very careful about how they watch their children these days, anyway."

Said Walker, "there's that general hysteria that if it's a sex offender, they're going to come after our small children, and that's just not true most of the time."




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