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Posted by on Sep 2, 2009 in Society | 5 comments

Limits of Sex Offender Alert Programs Exposed

I am a long-time critic of sex-offender registries (see, most recently, here). Part of the problem is we’re too quick to use the sex-offender label — an estimated 674,000 people appear on registries across the country — diluting its efficacy. Another is that even with registries we are too often too trusting to recognize the wolf at the door.

But the bottom line is sex-offender registries don’t work. And the Phillip Garrido case clearly demonstrates the limits of sex offender alert programs:

Mr. Garrido, who had been convicted of kidnapping and rape in the 1970s, was listed, as required, on California’s sex-offender registry (complete with a description of the surgical scar on his abdomen and his 196-pound weight) and had dutifully checked in with the local authorities each year for the past decade — all while, officials say, his victim and the two children he is accused of fathering with her were living in his backyard.

Sex offender lists have made far more information readily available to the public and the police than before, but experts say little research is available to suggest that the registries have actually discouraged offenders from committing new crimes.

Ernie Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, is quoted saying, “let’s at least make sure they’re not working in your elementary school or coaching the soccer team.” I’m not so sure we need registries to prevent that. And it’s setting the bar far too low:

If anything, Mr. Garrido was getting far more attention than the average offender listed on a state registry.

For years and until his arrest last week, he was on parole from the earlier kidnapping and rape in Nevada, and, California authorities said, met several times a month with a parole officer and wore a GPS device that tracked his whereabouts. Three years ago, he was visited by a sheriff’s deputy after a neighbor complained that he had a “sexual addiction” and that children were living in his yard. […]

Mr. Garrido’s case has also renewed concern that policies regulating offenders may inadvertently be driving them to live in more remote, out-of-the-way places, where crimes can go unnoticed. Nine other registered sex offenders live within a mile of Mr. Garrido’s home on the outskirts of Antioch, in a dusty neighborhood on the outer reaches of the Bay Area… at least one neighbor said the unincorporated area was “loaded” with offenders, in part because no schools are around, meeting the current rules.

RELATED: The WaPo’s Charles Lane looks at how Phillip Garrido got out of prison in 1988. He concludes that “if today’s rules had been in force on the morning of June 10, 1991, as Jaycee Lee Dugard scurried off to catch the school bus in South Lake Tahoe, California, Phillip Garrido might well have been safely behind bars.”