Sunday, August 10, 2014

Steve Blow: Research Won’t Support Dallas Proposal that Amounts to Housing Ban for Sex Offenders

Research won’t support Dallas proposal that amounts to housing ban for sex offenders
By Steve Blow August 9, 2014

In saner times, what Josh Gravens did would be called “playing doctor” or “adolescent curiosity.” 

General embarrassment and a stern talking-to would have followed. And that would have been the end of it. 

But in this age of hysteria, the childhood misdeed will never end for Josh. 

And now the city of Dallas considers making it worse by declaring a great majority of the city off limits for him to live. By extension, that would mean his wife and five children, too. 

Josh, 28, is a registered sex offender. When he was 12 and his sister was 8, they had two episodes of sexual play. 

The sister told their mother. The mother turned to a Christian counseling center for advice. The counseling center said it had no choice but to call police. Police turned it over to a juvenile court. 

And hard as it is to believe, Josh was locked up at age 13 and would spend the next 31/2 years in the Texas juvenile justice system. He has been required to register ever since as a sex offender, and it plagues his life. 

“It’s a modern, Internet-era form of a stockade,” he said. “It serves no public-safety purpose. It’s just essentially a wall of shame.” 
We’ve talked here lately about how our laws on sexual misconduct have gone badly overboard. And now the City Council looks at joining in. 

In a briefing session last week, the council heard a proposal to impose residency restrictions on registered sex offenders — setting distances on how far they must live from parks and schools and such. 
Josh, a Lake Highlands resident, was among those who spoke against the idea. He introduced his wife and five children. 

Josh and I talked at length the next day. “It would be one thing if these residency restrictions had some proven safety benefit,” he said. “But there is not one study that has found any benefit.” 

Don’t take his word for it. Here’s what the experts say: “Residence restrictions are simply not a feasible strategy for preventing child sexual abuse.” That’s from the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. 

Josh said he was encouraged by council members who said they want to make a decision based on evidence, not exaggerated fears or political expediency. 

If that’s the case, their decision will be easy. Others have already plowed this ground. When Minnesota was considering statewide restrictions, the state studied the residential proximity issue. 

First, it’s important to note that — contrary to popular belief — registered sex offenders have one of the very lowest recidivism rates. Minnesota looked at 224 cases of people convicted of a second sex crime.

The conclusion: “Not one of the 224 sex offenses would likely have been deterred by a residency restrictions law.” 

An academic study in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior also found no safety benefit. But it noted real potential to make things worse: “The time that police and probation officers spend addressing sex offender housing issues is likely to divert law enforcement resources away from behaviors that truly threaten our communities.” 

Evidence is mounting that our broad-brush approach to sex offenders is doing more harm than good. We mistakenly came to equate “sex offender” with “pedophile predator.” 

A tiny percentage truly fall into that second category. And they need close monitoring, which can be accomplished through better parole and probation oversight. 

The rest pose little or no threat of re-offending. And we only increase that possibility by preventing them from working, from living in decent housing, from reuniting with family. 

It may take a bit of courage, but if the Dallas City Council wants to make a decision based on evidence, it will stay off the hysteria bandwagon.