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Predator Panic - Reality Check on Sex Offenders skeptical

Benjamin Radford,, 16 May 2006 

If you believe the near-daily news stories, sexual predators lurk
everywhere: in parks, at schools, in the malls - even in teens' computers.
A few rare (but high-profile) incidents have spawned an unprecedented
slate of new laws enacted in response to the public's fear.

Every state has notification laws to alert communities about released
sex offenders. Many states have banned sex offenders from living in
certain areas, and are tracking them using satellite technology.
Officials in Florida and Texas plan to bar convicted sex offenders from
public shelters during hurricanes.

Most people believe that sex offenders pose a serious and growing
threat. According to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, "the danger to
teens is high." On the April 18, 2005, "CBS Evening News" broadcast,
correspondent Jim Acosta reported that 

"when a child is missing, chance are good it was a convicted sex offender." 

(Acosta is incorrect: If a child goes missing, a convicted sex offender is actually among the least likely explanations, far behind runaways, family abductions, and the child being lost or injured.)

On his "To Catch a Predator" series on "Dateline NBC," reporter Chris
Hansen claims that 

"the scope of the problem is immense" and "seems to be getting worse." 
In fact, Hansen stated, Web predators are 
"a national epidemic."

The news media emphasizes the dangers of Internet predators, convicted
sex offenders, pedophiles, and child abductions. Despite relatively few
instances of child predation and little hard data on topics such as
Internet predators, journalists invariably suggest that the problem is
extensive, and fail to put their stories in context. The "Today Show,"
for example, ran a series of misleading and poorly designed hidden
camera "tests" to see if strangers would help a child being abducted.

New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald wrote a front-page article
about Justin Berry, a California teen who earned money as an underage
Webcam model, seduced by an online audience who paid to watch him
undress. Berry's story made national news, and he appeared on Oprah and
in front of a Senate committee. Berry's experience, while alarming, is
essentially an anecdote. Is Berry's case unique, or does it represent
just the tip of the sexual predation iceberg? Eichenwald is vague about
how many other teen porn purveyors like Berry he found during his
six-month investigation. Three or four? Dozens? Hundreds or thousands?

Eichenwald's article states merely that "the scale of Webcam pornography
is unknown," while suggesting that Berry's experience was only one of

(Acosta, Hansen, and Eichenwald did not respond to repeated
requests for clarification of their reporting.)

Sex offenders are clearly a threat and commit horrific crimes, but how
great is the danger? After all, there are many dangers in the world-from
lightning to Mad Cow Disease to school shootings-that are real but very
rare. Are they as common-and as likely to attack the innocent-as most
people believe? 

A close look at two widely-repeated claims about the threat posed by sex offenders reveals some surprising truths.

One in five?

According to a May 3, 2006, "ABC News" report, 

"One in five children is now approached by online predators."

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" [20%] to 3 percent

This is a far cry from a "national epidemic" of children being
"approached by online predators." As the study noted, 

"The problem highlighted in this survey is not just adult males trolling for sex. Much of the offending behavior comes from other youth [and] from females." 

Furthermore, most kids just ignored (and were not upset by)
the solicitation: 

"Most youth are not bothered much by what they encounter on the Internet ... Most young people seem to know what to do to
deflect these sexual "come on" 's." 

The reality is far less grave than the ubiquitous "one in five" statistic suggests. 

Recidivism revisited

Much of the concern over sex offenders stems from the perception that if
they have committed one sex offense, they are almost certain to commit
more. This is the reason given for why sex offenders (instead of, say,
murderers or armed robbers) should be monitored and separated from the
public once released from prison.

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

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 re-offend 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. 

If sex offenders are no more likely to re-offend than murderers or armed
robbers, there seems little justification for the public's fear, or for
the monitoring laws tracking them. 

(Studies also suggest that sex offenders living near schools or playgrounds are no more likely to commit a sex crime than those living elsewhere.)

Putting the threat in perspective

The issue is not whether children need to be protected; of course they
do. The issues are whether the danger to them is great, and whether the
measures proposed will ensure their safety. While some efforts - such as
longer sentences for repeat offenders - are well-reasoned and likely to be
effective, those focused on separating sex offenders from the public are
of little value because they are based on a faulty premise. Simply
knowing where a released sex offender lives - or is at any given
moment - does not ensure that he or she won't be near potential victims.

While the abduction, rape, and killing of children by strangers is very,
very rare, such incidents receive a lot of media coverage, leading the
public to overestimate how common these cases are. Most sexually abused
children are not victims of convicted sex offenders nor Internet
pornographers, and most sex offenders do not re-offend once released.
This information is rarely mentioned by journalists more interested in
sounding alarms than objective analysis.

One tragic result of these myths is that the panic over sex offenders
distracts the public from a far greater threat to children: parental
abuse and neglect.

The vast majority of crimes against children are committed not by
released sex offenders, but instead by the victim's own family, church
clergy, and family friends. According to the National Center for Missing
and Exploited Children, 

"based on what we know about those who harm children, the danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a stranger." 

If lawmakers and the public are serious about wanting to protect children, they should not be misled by "stranger danger" myths and instead focus on the much larger threat inside the home.

Benjamin Radford wrote about Megan's Laws and lawmaking in response to
moral panics in his book "Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists,
and Advertisers Mislead Us." He is the managing editor of Skeptical
Inquirer magazine.

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