At any given time there are approximately 275,000 convicted sex offenders under some form of community supervision in the United States. This typology of offender is expected to grow as more people are being convicted for traditional sex crimes (e.g., rape and child molestation) as well as relatively new types of sex crimes such as Internet child pornography, sex trafficking, and sex tourism. The increasing number of sex offenders will continue to represent a significant problem for the probation and parole officers charged with supervising them. A balance between community safety and reintegration or a successful realignment with conventional behavior is a difficult task. The public sentiment often influences community supervision strategies that lean toward practices that yield little benefit when compared to the costs incurred by the agency employing these measures. Some measures, such as housing restrictions, often serve to appease the public, yet empirical data indicates this measure is counterproductive to community safety. These measures often soothe public outcry without addressing or accomplishing public safety goals. However, measures such as sex-offender-specific treatment in combination with adequate community supervision, which does address public safety, does not receive the same attention as more restrictive measures do.
History of and Rationale for Sex Offender Community Supervision
Sex offenders have been a part of the criminal justice system since codification of law or common law began being officially enforced. In the middle part of the 20th century more laws in the United States governing child sex abuse emerged in large part due to various women’s rights and victims’ rights movements. California established the first sex offender registry in 1947. The purpose of such a registry was to benefit law enforcement investigations concerning sexual assaults. It was largely a mental health registry as opposed to a criminal registry, as instances of sexual abuse were largely considered mental health defects as opposed to crimes.
In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, the issue of sex offenders in the community came to the forefront for many Americans. Several high-profile cases caught the media’s attention, and the focus on sex offenders in the community soon became a priority for legislators as well as community and institutional corrections agencies. Indeed, much legislation relating to offenders is named after children killed or presumed killed by a previously convicted sex offender (Jacob Wetterling Act, Megan’s Law, and Jessica’s Law). The length of a sentence and conditions after release impact community supervision in fundamental ways.
The public perception of sex offenders and how sex offending occurs are informed by these heinous, but relatively infrequent, instances of child sex abuse followed by murder. Cases involving brutality, and especially extreme brutality, become the focus of media. These cases capture the public’s attention. Broad generalizations about sex offenders and sex offending are established, as for many their only experience with sexual abuse occurs while absorbing media. Stereotypes are easily formulated and become cemented into conventional wisdom as well as public and professional discourse surrounding sex offenders and sexual offending. Myths based on misperceptions, generalization, and stereotypes emerge concerning sex offenders and sexual offenses. These myths can translate into well-intentioned but uninformed policies and practices concerning sex offenders sanctioned to some type of community supervision.
Probation and parole agencies have employed a number of different strategies and tactics to improve public safety while also insulating themselves from potential litigation that can result in the event a sex offender sexually recidivates while under supervision. Some of these measures appear to be empirically sound and accomplish their intended purposes, while other measures can be considered ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.
Community Supervision Measures
Measures such as offender registration, housing restrictions, and the use of global positioning system (GPS) monitoring have gained significant support in recent years and are often used by community supervision agencies as strategies used to inhibit sexual recidivation. However, these strategies appear to bear little empirical support. Sex offender registration has shown mixed results of effectiveness; housing restrictions for sex offenders are empirically unsupported and have even been demonstrated to be counterproductive. GPS monitoring has also yielded mixed results. Yet, these measures are a standard in community supervision.
Sex offender registration was first implemented in New Jersey after 8-year-old Megan Kanka was sexually assaulted and killed by a previously convicted sex offender who was on parole at the time of the offense. Many states began to adopt sex offender registries. Subsequently, the federal government adopted the Jacob Wetterling Act, which made sex offender registration tied to federal law enforcement funding in all 50 states. Failure to maintain a registry results in the loss of federal funds that would have otherwise been dedicated to law enforcement. Each state employs different ways in which to satisfy registration. Some states post information on Web sites such as the offender’s name, current address, employment, and conviction for everyone convicted of a sexual offense. Other states operate a tiered system of registration where only those deemed to present the most danger to the community are made public. Regardless of registration protocol, registration can be from a period of 10 years to life depending on jurisdiction. Probation and parole agencies often initiate registration procedures by collecting information and data as required by their jurisdiction. These duties are often require specialized knowledge and time to complete forms and understand the process. As a result of registration officers field concerns from the public as well as from offenders concerned about divulging information that can lead to various forms of community retribution. Failure to register usually brings new charges that can place a person back on community supervision, thereby increasing caseloads or increasing revocation rates.
Housing restrictions forbid a person convicted of a sex offense to live near places where children normally congregate. Laws pertaining to restriction zones vary from 500 feet to 2,000 feet. This means that a person convicted of a sex offense cannot live within the prescribed distance from a prohibited place (e.g., school, pool, park, or playground) as set within the law. Twenty-two states and several municipalities have adopted this measure. Housing restrictions have been widely criticized as being ineffectual at stopping sexual recidivism and even counterproductive to reintegration measures. Housing restrictions represent a special problem for community supervision officials. These measures can make it illegal for an offender to live in large geographic areas, which can include entire towns or cities, as prohibited zones often overlap. Thus, finding living accommodations that also support conditions of release such as employment or treatment can be more than challenging. Reintegration is hampered as sources of support are strained or eliminated by distance or lack of resources.
GPS monitoring can also be employed by community supervision officers. This type of monitoring allows an officer to track an offender’s movement at any time. A bracelet GPS monitor is usually affixed to an offender’s ankle and their whereabouts can be tracked continuously for a fixed amount of time. Offenders can be monitored for brief periods or throughout their supervision period. GPS in combination with other supervision strategies have some empirical support but solely relying on GPS units has proven ineffectual. A false sense of security and an overdependence on this technology appears flawed.
There are various other measures that are less frequently used, such as yard signs that identify property where a convicted sex offender resides or car bumper stickers that identify vehicles driven by convicted sex offenders. These well-intentioned measures can distract from other more effective means of public safety or even facilitate future recidivism.
Measures that have enjoyed more success empirically may not receive as much support as registration or restriction zones. However, they are being adopted by agencies seeking to use evidence-based practices. Specifically, agencies that utilize specialized officers that supervise only sex offenders are common practice. Specialization allows probation and parole officers to become acutely familiar with sex offender treatment modalities, risk management, and identification of escalating behavior, as well as victims’ issues.
The use and importance of sex offender treatment in combination with supervision has also been important. Many agencies use polygraphs to aid in treatment and help the community supervision officer identify case management risks and needs. Finally, supervising sex offenders in the community has had a positive secondary effect. Collaboration between agencies from probation/parole and law enforcement has grown as a result of needing to work together to monitor sex offenders in the community effectively as well as enforce laws created as a response to sex offenders in the community. The field of community sex offender management will continue to evolve.
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- Levensen, Jill and Leo Cotter. “The Impact of Sex Offender Residence Restrictions: 1,000 Feet From Danger or One Step From Absurd?” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, v.49/2 (2005).
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