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Let's all calm down

With the Foley scandal, sexual predators have been a hot topic lately. There’s an interesting article in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer about the panic over the issue. It’s available here, in a slightly different form.

You’ve heard that 1 in 5 child Internet users have received a sexual solicitation, right? It’s here, among other places. It’s based on a survey done by the Justice department. The problem?

This alarming statistic is commonly cited in news stories about prevalence of Internet predators. The claim can be traced back to a 2001 Department of Justice study issued by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“The Youth Internet Safety Survey”) that asked 1,501 American teens between 10 and 17 about their online experiences. Among the study’s conclusions: “Almost one in five (19 percent)…received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year.” (A “sexual solicitation” is defined as a “request to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information that were unwanted or, whether wanted or not, made by an adult.” Using this definition, one teen asking another teen if her or she is a virgin—or got lucky with a recent date—could be considered “sexual solicitation.”)

Not a single one of the reported solicitations led to any actual sexual contact or assault. Furthermore, almost half of the “sexual solicitations” came not from “predators” or adults but from other teens. When the study examined the type of Internet “solicitation” parents are most concerned about (e.g., someone who asked to meet the teen somewhere, called the teen on the telephone, or sent gifts), the number drops from “one in five” to 3 percent.

That’s a little different picture, isn’t it? No one is suggesting kids should be allowed in chatrooms unsupervised, but let’s have a little perspective.

The other point is the recidivism rate of sex offenders. Turns out, it’s not really that bad:

The high recidivism rate among sex offenders is repeated so often that it is usually accepted as truth, but in fact recent studies show that the recidivism rates for sex offenses is not unusually high. According to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study (“Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994”), just five percent of sex offenders followed for three years after their release from prison in 1994 were arrested for another sex crime. A study released in 2003 by the Bureau found that within three years, 3.3 percent of the released child molesters were arrested again for committing another sex crime against a child. Three to five percent is hardly a high repeat offender rate.

In the largest and most comprehensive study ever done of prison recidivism, the Justice Department found that sex offenders were in fact less likely to reoffend than other criminals. The 2003 study of nearly 10,000 men convicted of rape, sexual assault, and child molestation found that sex offenders had a re-arrest rate 25 percent lower than for all other criminals. Part of the reason is that serial sex offenders—those who pose the greatest threat—rarely get released from prison, and the ones who do are unlikely to re-offend.

In other words, we do a pretty good job of locking up the ones who are in danger of repeat offenses. That’s in contrast to the hysteria behind laws like this:

A recently enacted law allows county prosecutors, the state attorney general, or, as a last resort, alleged victims to ask judges to civilly declare someone to be a sex offender even when there has been no criminal verdict or successful lawsuit.

The rules spell out how the untried process would work. It would largely treat a person placed on the civil registry the same way a convicted sex offender is treated under Ohio’s so-called Megan’s Law.

The person’s name, address, and photograph would be placed on a new Internet database and the person would be subjected to the same registration and community notification requirements and restrictions on where he could live.

A civilly declared offender, however, could petition the court to have the person’s name removed from the new list after six years if there have been no new problems and the judge believes the person is unlikely to abuse again.

In other words, if you successfully defend yourself, you can still be essentially found guilty and your life ruined for the next six years (at least).

It really does seem like a little perspective is in order. These people are sick, but they’re not as big of a problem as the media says.

Categories: The media
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