The jury was chosen in Pittsburgh, 300 miles from the trial location near Philadelphia. The defense accused prosecutors of trying to exclude blacks from the jury.
All 12 jurors and six alternates in the Bill Cosby sex-assault trial were seated early Wednesday evening in Pittsburgh for the case, which is scheduled to begin June 5 in Montgomery County near Philadelphia, 300 miles away. The jury is made up of six white men, four white women, one black man and one black woman, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Four alternates are white men; one is a black man and the other a black woman.
The jury selection included some levity, when one prospective male juror joked about having been married for 45 years and said that some people get less time for murder. That man was not selected as a juror because of medical issues. One of the lingering questions was how diverse the jury would end up being. Defense lawyers for Cosby accused prosecutors of trying to exclude black people from the jury.
Child porn offenders deploy an ever-evolving arsenal of tools, including encryption, peer-to-peer networks and the Dark Web, in a cross-border technological “arms race” that is outstripping law enforcement’s ability to track and catch them.
There were rules to be a member of Dreamboard, an online bulletin board whose sole purpose was advertising and distributing child pornography.
One rule: No children older than 13.
In 2009, dozens of law enforcement agencies—including ICE-Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Department of Justice and 35 domestic ICE offices—infiltrated the network and cracked into its encrypted files.
“Operation Delego,” as it was called, was one of the largest U.S. law enforcement efforts aimed at fighting internet crimes against children. It has led to more than 70 convictions to date, including Brian Musomba Maweu, a.k.a. “Catfish,” who in a recent letter to The (Shreveport) Times criticized “the whole ‘child porn is evil’ attitude.”
Operation Delego was a success at a time when law enforcement officers often are outgunned technologically by the very people they’re trying to stop: child pornographers and people who solicit children for sex online.
Technological advances and the internet have forced law enforcement agencies to evolve methods of tracking and catching online predators.
But the growth in internet crimes against children has far outstripped the resources provided to law enforcement agencies to fight them, law enforcement experts say.
In Louisiana, beat cops and sheriff’s deputies handle internet-related crimes on top of existing caseloads.
But the state also has a number of specially trained investigators from multiple agencies – including the Shreveport FBI, the Bossier City Marshal’s Office, and the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office in Baton Rouge, among others—who serve on the Louisiana Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
The state ICAC team received 1,200 cybertips, arrested more than 220 individuals, performed 865 forensic examinations of devices and responded to more than 600 statewide requests for technical support in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The money granted to them for their work? Federal funds totaling $317,572.
Corey Bourgeois, lead investigator at the attorney general’s cybercrime unit, is grateful for that federal money. Without it, he said, his lab couldn’t function.
But the money doesn’t stretch far. Forensic tool kits cost at least $500 per unit, and the lab spends at least $55,000 a year for software renewals and upgrades, Bourgeois said.
The Louisiana Attorney General’s Cyber Crime Lab has two “evidence rooms” packed floor to ceiling with devices seized from child pornographers. Photo by Lee Celano/Shreveport Times
The upgrades and high-tech equipment are needed to counter online predators’ ever-evolving arsenal of tools, including encryption. Dreamboard users employed encryption software, peer-to-peer networks and the Dark Web to share thousands of images with people across 13 countries.
And rules for Dreamboard users required all members to use specific encryption technologies to avoid law enforcement detection, according to court documents.
Dreamboard also attached a link and a password to every child sexual abuse file description, which its members used to access the images through another website whose sole purpose was to store encrypted files.
Online offenders, in general, are becoming increasingly tech-savvy, Bourgeois said.
More than a fifth of online offenders use “sophisticated” methods to hide their offenses: including password protection, encryption, file servers or P2P networks, evidence eliminator software, remote storage or partitioned hard drives, according to a Crimes Against Children Research Center report.
District Attorney Schuyler Marvin said one offender in Bossier Parish wired his computer to wipe the hard drive if a pass code wasn’t entered within the first few seconds of opening the device.
Another offender, during an online chat with an undercover agent, asked the “13-year-old girl” to send him a picture. Since law enforcement agents are not allowed to distribute child pornography, the agent’s phone wouldn’t permit him to send pictures. But the offender had figured out that the agent was using a smartphone, Marvin said, and cut the conversation short.
Bourgeois said his agents have ways to “get around” encryption and other protections. But once they break into offenders’ troves of images, investigators face another challenge.
“We’ve seen cases lately where we can’t even catalogue them all,” said Lt. Chad Gremillion, who works for the Special Victims Unit of the Louisiana State Police.
“We’re talking about terabytes, literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of images. Videos that are an hour in length of a child being sexually assaulted, raped, forced into oral sex and bondage scenarios.”
A terabyte, a unit of digital storage equal to about 1,000 gigabytes, can hold about 3.6 million images, 300 hours of good quality video or about 1,000 copies of the Encyclopædia Brittanica, according to whatsabyte.com.
The attorney general’s cyber crime lab currently stores on its servers more than 800 terabytes of digital evidence, Bourgeois said. The lab also has two “evidence rooms,” packed from floor to ceiling, with hard drives, printers, laptops and other physical items seized by agents.
The lab stores the evidence for five to eight years after cases are adjudicated, then burns the devices in an incinerator at the state police lab in Alexandria, Bourgeois said. Meanwhile, he tries to visit the evidence rooms “as little as possible” due to their gruesome contents.
Bourgeois said the lab’s computer software can help sort through and match the millions of violent images to known victims in an international database, created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But investigators have to view the hundreds of thousands of remaining images, and that can take an emotional toll on his staff, Bourgeois said.
“We use computers to do things more efficiently, but it still takes a person to put their eyes on this to make sure that it is in fact the image that it says it is,” he said.
Dreamboard rules required all members to post images of at least three minors engaged in “sexually explicit conduct” so that members “would have a massive and private library of child pornography available,” according to court documents.
Maweu, snared in the Dreamboard sting, had gained “Super VIP” status by posting more than 120 images of child pornography, at least 34 of which he had produced himself, according to court documents.
A Kenyan, he was extradited to the United States, convicted on one count of child exploitation enterprise and sentenced to life imprisonment at the Pollock Federal Correctional Institution in Louisiana.
Materials posted by Maweu and other Dreamboard members included video files as well as still images.
That means that investigators not only see the sexual abuse of the children in a still image. They also see it happening before their eyes as the acts unfold on video. They hear it, too.
Bourgeois, who has an eight-year-old daughter, said some days he struggles to continue the work he does at the cybercrime lab.
It’s hard to talk about what you do. In that way, you feel alone,” he said. “But you go home and you thank God that everybody is safe, and you come to work the next day, knowing that what you and your team is doing every day is helping just a little bit.”
Globalization, encryption, offender communities and the prevalent use of the “Dark Web” are only a few of the challenges law enforcement officers face in addressing internet-related crimes.
Another main challenge is mobile devices and their proliferation of apps and social media sites, including Snapchat, Instagram, What’s App, Kik Messenger, Facebook and more, said Caddo Sheriff’s Office Detective Jared Marshall, also an ICAC Task Force member.
On a brisk March morning, the soft-spoken investigator sat in his office cubicle, scanning IP addresses that popped onto a screen connected to a special peer-to-peer computer that tracked active child pornography downloads. Marshall watched for sexual solicitations of children on a second monitor and separate browser, opened to a chat site well known to investigators.
Marshall said his first undercover investigation with the site, in which he assumed the identity of the solicited teen by taking over her account, taught him that each new digital platform has unique challenges. He exited the teen’s account on her phone, then tried logging into the account again from his work phone, only to find that in the brief interlude the alternative texting site had deleted the evidence he needed.
“The whole case hinged on the fact that I needed to preserve that evidence, that conversation. When I logged out to log into my work phone, I lost all that information,” Marshall said.
Outsmarting Online Predators
Marshall said training in peer-to peer investigations and undercover chat operations, funded by federal dollars, has helped him keep up with tactics used by tech-savvy offenders.
Training also has allowed him to brush up on forensic skills that are critical to nailing offenders behind their keyboards in real time as they commit internet crimes.
Agents use computer forensics to identify people who access child sexual abuse images or try to solicit children online. Their tools permit agents to determine the IP address, computer host name and the Globally Unique Identifier – or GUID – used to uniquely identify a computer’s operating system.
Shelley Anderson, lead detective for the Bossier City Marshal’s Office Cyber Crime Unit, often has used forensic examinations of devices when online offenders claim that they were “hacked” or that they’re innocent of viewing or possessing child abuse images.
“That’s when you do a deeper dive for forensics. You have to follow that rabbit hole,” Anderson said.
But forensic interviews are time-intensive and expensive, Bourgeois said. A forensic interview for a single device can average up to four months and can require the attention of expert agents.
Bourgeois said parishes have to be particularly careful about whom they train to fight internet-related crimes. Too often, investigators go through the training and then are promoted or re-assigned to different departments and the internet crime fighters’ access to their valuable skills is lost, Bourgeois said.
“Child pornography is a problem (and) it’s going to continue to be a problem because of the access to it now,” he said.
“The internet has created an access that we’ve never had before. “
This is an abridged and slightly edited version of a story published yesterday in The Shreveport Times, as part of a series investigating crime on the Internet. Lex Talamo was a 2016 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Criminal Justice Reporting Fellow. The full story is available here. Lex welcomes comments from readers.
A judge issued a preliminary injunction against the state after a sex offender complained that he was retroactively subjected to lifetime GPS monitoring that wasn’t part of his sentence agreement. The state said a new law required 364 offenders to get GPS ankle monitors.
Hundreds of sex offenders will soon have GPS monitoring devices removed from their ankles after Missouri officials recently required that they wear the bulky devices, under a preliminary injunction ordered by Cole County Circuit Court yesterday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. The case was filed on behalf of a sex offender from St. Charles County. The state Board of Probation and Parole installed 364 GPS ankle monitors on sex offenders in April for life, even though such monitoring was not part of their sentencing agreement.
Officials said the retroactive requirements are part of a revised state criminal code that went into effect Jan. 1. Offenders who either were found guilty or pleaded guilty to various sex crimes based on an act committed on or after Aug. 28, 2006, were subject to the added security measures. Previously, the monitoring technology was used for a more limited class of high-risk offenders. Attorney Matt Fry sued the state on behalf of D.G., a 40-year-old man who said the law didn’t exist when he pleaded guilty to crimes associated with sending webcam photographs of his genitals to an undercover officer posing as a 13-year-old girl. D.G. completed five years of probation in 2016. The GPS devices are supposed to alert state officials if an offender lingers near a school, park or other areas from which sex offenders are excluded.
The jury will be chosen in Pittsburgh even though the trial will be held near Philadelphia. Cosby is making an eleventh-hour media pitch claiming racism is behind the case against him.
Bill Cosby will be in Pittsburgh on Monday for jury selection in his sexual assault trial. The 79-year-old entertainer will arrive in a city divided over how he should be received, Philly.com reports. Summonses have gone out to nearly 3,000 potential jurors. The trial itself is scheduled to begin June 5 in Norristown across the state near Philadelphia. It promises to be the most closely watched legal spectacle since O.J. Simpson’s 1995 prosecution. It will be the first public vetting of allegations that mirror claims by dozens of women who have accused Cosby of sexual improprieties dating back decades.
Cosby supporters abound in Pittsburgh, a city of 300,000, but an eleventh-hour push to rehabilitate his public image through nationally broadcast radio interviews and statements claiming racism at the heart of the case against him has rubbed some the wrong way. “He should not be pimping the civil rights movement for his cause,” said Tim Stevens of the Black Political Empowerment Project in Pittsburgh. State court administrators chose Pittsburgh for jury selection out of concern that overwhelming pretrial publicity may have tainted the jury pool in Norristown. It seems unfathomable that any potential jurors won’t have heard of Cosby’s legal travails, but his defense team hopes to find 12 men and women and six alternates who remain open-minded about allegations from Andrea Constand, who says Cosby drugged and assaulted her at his mansion in 2004. In seeking to move the jury selection, Cosby’s lawyers sought a large urban center with more “diverse and opposing viewpoints.”
About half of hotel employees say they have been sexually assaulted or harassed by a guest, union surveys show. Many incidents go unreported because the housekeepers, often immigrants or women of color, fear losing their jobs.
John Boswell, a millionaire in Washington, D.C., to toast President Trump’s inauguration, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sexual abuse for rubbing a hotel maid’s buttocks. “This is very nice stuff,” he said. “I like that!” Such incidents are common in an industry where about half of employees say they have been sexually assaulted or harassed by a guest, union surveys have shown, the Washington Post reports. Many go unreported because the housekeepers, often immigrants or women of color, fear losing their jobs. In 2011, the plight of hotel housekeepers became international news when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund, was accused of sexually assaulting a maid at a New York luxury hotel. Criminal charges were dropped, but the incident prompted hotels to provide maids with panic buttons.
Six years later, the devices only now are reaching many other parts of the nation. When pressed, the panic buttons send a maid’s location to hotel security. Hotels pay for the devices and monitoring systems, which generally cost up to $50,000. In November, voters in Seattle approved a measure providing hotel workers with panic buttons and other protections. Chicago’s city council is considering a measure that would require panic buttons. Vanessa Sinders of the American Hotel & Lodging Association said the industry is committed to using technology to keep its employees safe.
The FBI has been investigating since a teenage girl in North Carolina said she had been exchanging lewd messages with ex-U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner. The case may have affected the presidential election when agents found emails from Hillary Clinton to Weiner’s wife in his laptop.
Former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner will appear in federal court this morning to face criminal charges in connection with an investigation of his online communications with a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina, the Associated Press reports. The FBI began investigating Weiner in September after the North Carolina girl told a tabloid news site that she and the disgraced former politician had exchanged lewd messages for several months. She also accused him of asking her to undress on camera.
The investigation led FBI agents to seize his laptop computer, which prompted the discovery of a new cache of emails that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had sent to Huma Abedin, Weiner’s wife. A few days before the election, FBI director James Comey announced that his agency was reopening its investigation into Clinton’s handling of State Department business on a private email server so it could analyze the newly discovered correspondence. Then, Comey said a few days later that the new emails contained nothing to change his view that Clinton should not be charged with a crime. Clinton blamed her election loss to Donald Trump partly on Comey’s action.
It wasn’t part of offenders’ sentencing agreements, but Missouri legislators passed a law that anyone guilty of 13 specified sex crimes committed in the last decade must wear monitoring devices indefinitely. Several offenders are suing to challenge the law.
Hundreds of sex offenders in Missouri are learning they must attach GPS monitoring systems to their ankles for life, even though such a requirement wasn’t part of their sentencing agreement, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. The devices send out alerts if an offender lingers near a school or a park. Cut the wide black strap and the waterproof device will tell on them. The GPS unit beeps to prompt a verbal command from state officials, such as to make a payment or report to probation officers immediately. The retroactive requirements are part of a revised state criminal code that went into effect Jan. 1. Offenders guilty of to 13 various sex crimes based on an act committed on or after Aug. 28, 2006, are subject to the added security measures. Previously, the monitoring technology was used for a more limited class of high-risk offenders.
Several sex offenders are suing to challenge the law. One man named only as D.G. argues that the law didn’t exist when he pleaded guilty. He claims he’s no longer “legally subject” to the jurisdiction of state prison authorities and that he shouldn’t be required to pay monthly supervision fees for decades, nor have travel or residency restricted for life. “I don’t think a lawyer can make a straight-faced argument that it’s constitutional,” said attorney Matt Fry, who is suing on behalf of D.G. and has many other plaintiffs in the wings. When they learned of the law, many sex offenders panicked and started calling lawyers. Some are confused: for instance, those no longer on supervision who moved away from Missouri. One 41-year-old sex offender from St. Louis County sees the changes as unlawful, too costly and ineffective. “Lifetime. For the rest of your life. I can’t even comprehend it,” the man said.
A researcher uses Backpage.com to identify a potential victim and get police help. The lesson, she writes, is that commercial sex trafficking sites are increasingly useful tools for law enforcement—and outlawing them is counterproductive.
However, this opinion does not facilitate the rescue of victims and prosecution of sex traffickers.
In fact, Backpage.com not only actively cooperates with law enforcement, but is a critical tool for investigation.
For example, on April 24th I identified a potential case of sex trafficking through online commercial sex advertisement and review forums. At the time, I was cross-referencing quotes from commercial sex consumers online for my forthcoming book, Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium.
The book—an effort to take readers behind the headlines of the human trafficking scourge in America—features direct quotes from convicted human traffickers, victims, sex workers, and commercial sex consumers (who refer to themselves as “mongers” or “hobbyists”).
At approximately 9:30pm, I came across a Backpage.com advertisement for a young woman in the Winston-Salem area of North Carolina that read:
“Hey baby I’m PANDORA come give me a call see what in my box and come on show me some love or what ever u like baby I even do massage too with nice touch to unwind from hard day work I rub u down with the magic touch come on down give PANDORA a call.”
Prima facie, this young woman, who claimed to be 25, may have been perceived as a consenting sex worker. However, reviews about her—which were posted on USASexGuide.info, a commercial sex review forum—told a different story.
Men on the website provided information that suggested the young woman was being trafficked.
On March 31, one man wrote:
“This girl has a developmental disability and is being used by her mother. Even mongers, need to draw a line somewhere. It can be argued that her disability means she doesn’t really know what she is consenting to. This is not like a woman who has demons (that) she should have known better to avoid. This is someone who is fully being abused by a parent.”
Upon seeing this review and the accompanying advertisement, I took a break from editing my book and immediately alerted the Winston-Salem and Thomasville police. Since the advertisement didn’t include a specific address, the police officers I spoke with weren’t sure which jurisdiction the case fell under.
I was uncertain whether the information from the websites was reliable, but on the off-chance it was, I wanted to report it to the police.
After notifying law enforcement, I took screenshots of the advertisements and reviews for evidence, and alerted Backpage.com administrators as well. Within minutes, the advertisements for this girl were removed from their website.
Less than two hours later, by approximately 11:30pm, the police had conducted an undercover sting at a hotel and had the girl from the advertisements in custody. One of the officers confirmed to me that the woman appeared to suffer from a developmental disability, but explained they needed to conduct further investigation to determine if and how she was being exploited.
The officers told me that they would try to connect the woman with social services and thanked me for bringing the information to their attention.
This is why my anti-trafficking advocacy doesn’t conflict with my support of cooperative policing with websites like Backpage.com. Although people can use classified advertisement forums to publicize marginalized women and children who may be sex-trafficked, these websites are also the catalyst for rescues and investigations across the United States.
They have been for years.
The movement of the commercial sex industry off the streets and online brought the previously clandestine crime of sex trafficking into the open. However, although Backpage.com ads initiate a large proportion of child sex-trafficking identifications and victim recoveries, the website continues to be publicly vilified through arrests and civil lawsuits, as well as by public shaming of supporters and politicians who receive donations from them.
Criminalizing Backpage.com will not reduce the commercial sex industry. If anything, it will simply displace commercial sex advertisements from Backpage.com to other websites, such as CityVibe.com–Your Local Escort Directory.
It’s like playing a game of Whack-a-Mole.
Instead of continuing to criminalize these websites and hold them liable for the actions of third parties, anti-trafficking advocates, law enforcement, and victim service providers should identify mechanisms to facilitate more information sharing and cooperation.
Internet-based commercial sex advertisement and review websites are undeniably contributing to the knowledge base of researchers and law enforcement, and we should facilitate–not stymie–this information-sharing.
In less than two hours, the aforementioned Backpage.com advertisement allowed me—a Washington D.C. based criminologist—to initiate an investigation, which brought a potential victim into custody over 300 miles away. This is one out of hundreds of examples of how the website has been used as an effective tool.
America needs to start focusing our anti-trafficking efforts toward policies and interventions that have measurable impacts, instead of blaming scapegoats and avoiding hard decisions just to collect cheap headlines.
Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” will be published by Praeger/ABC-Clio this year. She welcomes comments from readers.
Some 95 percent of juvenile offenders who enter the justice system won’t be arrested for another sex crime. Experts say the ordeal of facing police and parents, along with public condemnation, scares many straight.
Children who sexually assault other children may be the popular jocks, the loners or anyone in between. There is no typical attacker, no way for schools to predict who might inflict that kind of torment on a classmate. Thousands of school-age offenders are treated annually for sexual aggression in the U.S., yet experts see no standard profile of personality, background or motivation, the Associated Press reports. While anti-social behavior can suggest a greater risk of offending, the cool kid may attack and the rebel may reform. The reasons are rarely as straightforward as physical gratification, and they range from a sense of entitlement to desperation to fit in.
Though many sexual assaults aren’t reported to authorities, research shows that about 95 percent of juvenile offenders who enter the justice system won’t be arrested for another sex crime. Experts say the ordeal of facing police and parents, along with public condemnation, scares many straight. An Associated Press investigation has documented how K-12 schools can fail to protect students in their care from sexual assault, sometimes minimizing or even covering up incidents. Schools also struggle to help sexually aggressive students, both before and after they do lasting harm. The juvenile justice system stresses second chances, and even unrepentant offenders don’t forfeit their right to an education. Back in class, privacy laws can mean teachers and peers do not know their pasts. With support and maturation, experts say, young abusers typically recover. “It’s not a lifelong trajectory,” said Maia Christopher of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. “Children tend to be much more influenced by effective kinds of interventions than adults.”
Sex Offender registration laws haven’t improved community safety or reduced the numbers of victimized children. Even the mother of Jacob Wetterling, whose murder led to the passage of the 1994 law, agrees that it’s time for a second look, writes a former clinician.
As momentum around criminal justice reform builds nationwide, sex offenders are one population that is consistently left out of the conversation.
Megan’s Law, passed in 1996, added a community notification component. With the passage of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (or SORNA), the number of register-able offenses broadened and average lengths of registration increased. The intervening years between their inception and the present have not shown these laws to be effective in accomplishing their goals of community safety or reducing the number of children who are victimized.
So why aren’t champions of prison and sentencing reform talking about it?
The current laws were all enacted with the best of intentions. Parents, afraid for their children, overwhelmingly supported policies that they believed would keep their communities safe. But as we have seen in the case of the War on Drugs, policies so deeply rooted in fear and misunderstanding will never be successful. In the meantime, they are causing a great deal of harm.
Despite what researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business call a “lack of empirical evidence for the recidivism-reducing benefits of registration and notification,” these laws persist and cause a number of problems. The Chicago researchers point to the financial costs associated not just with those convicted and their families, but with the taxpayers who subsidize their registration and supervision.
Additionally, they point out, neighbors of those on the registry often suffer loss in property value, based simply on physical proximity.
Placement on the registry does not take into account individual risk level, meaning that people are assigned to a somewhat arbitrary term of registration, along with a tier, based solely on the broad category of crime they committed.
Much advocacy work has been undertaken in recent years to address the labeling and registry of juveniles convicted of sex offenses, citing data about low recidivism rates and discussing the harm done to young people who end up registered and greatly restricted when they pose little risk to the public.
This work has already been successful, with some states beginning to remove juvenile offenders from the registry. These same arguments can be made for large portions of the adult men and women who are currently registered across the United States.
Despite the oft-cited “frightening and high” language* that is used to describe recidivism rates for individuals who have committed sex offenses, current data suggests that recidivism rates, particularly for new sexual offenses, are incredibly low—especially when compared to other types of criminal behavior.
For example a California Corrections Department report found that of registrants returned to prison, a staggering 92% were rearrested on parole violations, while less than 1% were re-incarcerated for a new sexual offense. A 2003 brief from the Bureau of Justice Statistics cites a 5.3% recidivism rate over the first three years of release for high-risk offenders (those who have committed rape or sexual assault) with their likelihood of recidivism declining steadily over time.
For individuals classified as low-risk, those numbers are much lower: “About 97.5% of the low-risk offenders were offense-free after five years, about 95% were still offense-free after 15 years,” the report said. Compare this to the fact that more individuals (3%) convicted of felonies with no sex offense on their record (who are not, therefore on the registry) will commit a sex offense within 4.5 years of release.
I am not advocating for the laws to be thrown out entirely. But it’s time for a serious cost/benefit analysis.
And this call for reform has some surprising advocates. After her eleven-year-old son Jacob was abducted and murdered in 1989, Patty Wetterling began fighting for the implementation of a national registry. But in the intervening years, Wetterling has become a staunch supporter of smarter laws and policies. She saw firsthand the way that these laws could take on a life of their own, and have serious collateral consequences.
We need an honest accounting of which parts of these laws are functional and which are not. It’s a conversation that we should be having, for a number of reasons. Men and women on the registry often struggle to find and maintain stable housing or employment, due to their registration status.
Some researchers and treatment providers suggest that these “collateral consequences,” as they are often called, may actually increase the likelihood of recidivism by encouraging “social withdrawal and heightened anxiety…common precursors to reoffending.”
While it is certainly important for law enforcement to be able to effectively monitor violent and high-risk individuals, these individuals represent a minority of those on the registry. When we register people who don’t pose a serious risk to the community, we spread already scarce resources even more thinly.
Likewise, current systems perpetuate a myth that “violent strangers” are largely responsible for committing these insidious sexual offense—and, if we can only identify and isolate them, they can be managed.
The reality is much more complicated.
More than 90% of those who sexually offend are known to their victim. In fact, the stricter our laws become around sexual offenses and those who commit them, the more likely will a victim be discouraged from reporting abuse at the hands of a friend or family member, fearing the repercussions of registry and notification.
If we truly want to make our communities safer and to reduce the number of new victims of sexual offense, then we need to pursue practices and policies that are based on evidence and not rooted in fear.
By using individual risk-assessments to sentence and register individuals and engaging in primary prevention programs, we may actually begin to improve the safety of our communities— and of our children.
Sophie Day is a graduate student completing Masters in Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania. She has done clinical work with men convicted of sex offenses as well as policy research related to the laws currently on the books.
*This language, which comes from a U.S. Supreme Court decision written by Justice Kennedy in the 2002 case McKune v. Lile, 536 U.S. 24, 33, is based on an 80% recidivism rate for untreated offenders. This data point comes from a Department of Justice report which cites as its source an article from Psychology Today, a mass-market magazine and not a peer-reviewed journal. The article’s author was not a researcher, but a practitioner who offered treatments within California prisons and was writing the article to encourage people to use his services. He offered no data to backup the 80% recidivism that he quoted (Ellman & Ellman, 2015).