By now, all of Massachusetts and much of the country has heard about the gruesome allegations against John Burbine; a man accused of videotaping himself sexually abusing 13 young children. He’s also a Level 1 registered sex offender, which has understandably led lawmakers to respond with proposed legislation aimed at preventing such a crime from happening again. Unfortunately, as is often the case following high-profile child sex crimes, well-intentioned legislators respond with broad-brush proposals and political placebos that may make constituents feel good, but don’t actually do anything to protect the public.
Because Burbine was classified as a low risk Level 1 offender, the knee jerk emotional response has been that there must therefore be something wrong with the classification system, causing some Massachusetts legislators to propose that any offender who committed a crime against a child must no longer be classified as low risk. This flies in the face of volumes of studies that show conclusively that offenders who commit the same crime do not pose the same risk of reoffending. For example, offenders whose crime involved incest with a minor child have the lowest recidivism rate of any group of sex offenders. Additionally, approximately one-third of all sex crimes committed against children are committed by other minors and history has shown that treatment is particularly effective with this group in producing low re-offense rates.
The fact that a Level 1 offender committed a heinous act does not mean the system is not working. Level 1 means low risk - not no risk. Level 1 means that these offenders pose a relative lower risk of reoffending than Level 2 moderate-risk offenders or Level 3 highest-risk offenders. However, relative risk does not predict with certainty what an individual offender will do. Just as studies have shown that most high-risk offenders will never commit another sex crime, some low risk offenders will.
From the beginning of the sex offender registry risk classifications were designed to be a tool to assess the potential risk of a particular offender. They were based on an evaluation of the offender that looked at many characteristics, including the offender, the victim and the circumstances surrounding the offense and assigned a risk classification based on actuarial data of similar offenders. This system, while imperfect, has been shown to demonstrate better predictive results than other methods, including individual psychological evaluations.
If we are going to switch to a system that bases risk level designations solely on the crime committed than we will give up on even the pretense that levels are a risk assessment tool. A law that would prohibit offenders whose crimes were committed against children from being designated as Level 1 registrants will be that start of a slippery slope to making the risk tiers utterly meaningless – except perhaps as a new means to register societal disapproval of a particular act.
The U.S. Department of Justice along with numerous other criminal justice agencies and academic institutions have found that sex offenders have one of the lowest recidivism rates of any offender group in the criminal justice system. However, some subsets of offenders do indeed have higher rates of recidivism. Public policy initiatives should be directed at making risk assessments better able to identify those few offenders most likely to reoffend - as opposed to throwing in the towel and taking a one-size-fits-all approach.
Shana Rowan is the Executive Director of USA Families Advocating an Intelligent Registry, a nonprofit organization formed by loved ones of people required to register. All statistics may be verified at www.usafair.org/studies.