Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Michael Mullen, Sex Offender Vigilante

Sex Registries

For some, the intertwined Duncan and Mullen cases indicate that it is time for America to take a fresh look at our treatment of sex offenders.

Over the past 15 years, local, state and federal lawmakers have passed hundreds of new statutes intended to extend the incarceration of sex offenders and monitor their behavior after release.

But the Duncan case points out, once again, that no law can block a fiend from acting upon his homicidal impulses.

And the Mullen case, apparently the first involving lethal vigilantism against registered sex offenders, calls into question the safety and effectiveness of that widely used system. Cites, counties and states are bracing for more lawsuits by other sex offenders who feel targeted by the registries. The Mullen murders likely will serve as ammunition for a new round of legal challenges.

John LaFond, the retired law professor, said he found dozens of cases of harassment and assault of sex offenders as a result of registry listings while researching his 2005 book, Preventing Sexual Violence: How Society Should Cope with Sex Offenders.

In a telephone interview from Tacoma, LaFond told the Crime Library that the prevailing strategy of public notification and registries for all sex offenders wastes resources that should be used monitoring and treating the most dangerous offenders.

As often happens with crime, public policy is crafted based upon one highly abnormal case, such as the Duncan "stranger" attack. States will redouble their efforts to protect citizens from those nefarious strangers, plowing more money into that element of the problem.

Yet eight out of 10 sex assaults are committed by relatives, friends or acquaintances.

"Our current policies assume that all sex offenders are equally dangerous and that one size fits all in their treatment and monitoring," LaFond said. "We box up large numbers of sex offenders for long periods of time...But ultimately we release those same sex offenders back into the community with minimal supervision and control."

Public notification and registries place the onus on citizens to protect themselves, LaFond argued.

"It's almost as though the state is saying, 'There's a dangerous sex offender living within your midst. We have done all we can; the rest is up to you,'" he said.

That strategy scares the populace and leaves the erroneous impression that sex offenders have no hope of changing their behaviorthat they are more likely to re-offend than other criminals.

In fact, the opposite is true.

In general, about two-thirds of all ex-convicts re-offend within four years of parole.

But a groundbreaking 1998 study of 23,000 sex offenders found that just 13.4 percent of those ex-cons re-offended, although the rate varied vastly among different categories of offenders.

The lowest rate of re-offending was among those who assaulted family members. The rates were higher for non-related child molesters and for those who assaulted strangers.

The research showed that the greatest risk of re-offending was among those who abused multiple people or boys and were young themselves at the time of their first sex crimeprecisely the profile of Joseph Duncan.

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