Towards Informed Public Policies to Prevent Sexual Abuse
“By focusing the majority of preventative efforts on uncommon predation scenarios, current policies fail to adequately protect children, and society at large, from more common sexual offenses.” (Mesler et al., 2016; pp. 220).
Sensational offences, although horrendous and worthy of concerns, are not representative of the majority of sexual offences committed in the world. Why should we care about this statement? Recently, Julia Mesler, George Anderson, and Cynthia Calkins published a chapter in Advances in Psychology and Law (Volume 1) on sexual offender policy (available here). They propose that public misconception about the majority of individuals who have committed sexual offences is one of the driving forces behind public policies that do more harm than good in terms of public safety.
Here is an infographic of the common myths compared to the actual facts:
These myths are often used to justify laws and policies targeting individuals who have committed sexual offences, most of which increase the length of incarceration and monitor and restrict their movements once they return the community.
The principal goal of these policies and laws should keep society safe, but do they?
As summarized in the book chapter, registration and community notification policies have at best no effect and, at worst, the opposite effect (making society less safe). Why? Current policies, especially those with sweeping requirements for all individuals convicted of sexual offences, make it difficult for these individuals to find housing, gain employment, and, ultimately, isolate them. These factors can actually increase the risk of reoffences and make society less safe. In addition, Mesler and colleagues (2016) note that community notification and registries target uncommon sex offences: those committed by strangers. This ignores the reality that most sex crimes are committed by someone the victim knows.
Residence restrictions are another preventive effort that does little to make society safety because, again, it focuses on the unusual case of ‘stranger danger’. These laws prevent individuals who have committed sexual offences from living close to areas where children are, which can include daycare centers, public bus stops, play grounds, parks, and schools. It is perhaps safe to say most of the public do not want someone who has committed sexual offences in their neighbourhood, but I reckon that even more of the public wants public policies that prevent sexual abuse. These restrictions do not reduce sexual reoffending, and makes it extremely difficult for individuals who have committed sexual offences to find housing after being released and, at times, results in them becoming homeless.
It is perhaps safe to say most of the public do not want someone who has committed sexual offences in their neighbourhood, but I reckon that even more of the public wants public policies that prevent sexual abuse
Why should we care? Residency restrictions often result in offenders being removed from the home of supportive family members and moved them away from employment and treatment groups; access to which have been found to reduce reoffending rates. These policies have also been applied to youth with negative consequences, as summarized in an article in The New Yorker.
Instead, would it not be better to create (and fund) prevention efforts that have an impact of making society safer?
Julia Mesler and colleagues (2016) also debunk electronic and GPS monitoring, civil commitment, and lengthy incapacitation as methods to reduce sexual re-offending.
In short, efforts to educate the public on the characteristics of individuals who have committed sexual offences, though difficult, could increase public safety.
The public’s and governments’ misconception of the ‘typical sex offender’ continues to motivate interest in these costly policies, despite the available studies finding negative or no effects. Reforming problematic laws and policies and funding primary prevention programs can reduce sexual abuse, but “[c]hallenges to current policies are frequently conflated with being easy on offenders, disrespectful toward victims, and “soft” on crime” (pp. 240, Mesler et al., 2016). In short, efforts to educate the public on the characteristics of individuals who have committed sexual offences, though difficult, could increase public safety. An interesting proposition.
Babchishin, K. (2016, November 11). Towards informed public policies to prevent sexual abuse [Weblog post]. Retrieved from https://nextgenforensic.wordpress.com/2016/11/12/towards-informed-public-policies-to-prevent-sexual-abuse/.
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