Dirty Old Men 

The cynical politics of Megan's Law

NEW YORK--Crackdowns on sex criminals are all over the news, from the couple whose newborn boy was seized by Pennsylvania child welfare officials based on the father's conviction two decades ago, to a New Jersey law that bans offenders registered under Megan's Law from answering the door on Halloween. Media accounts of child abduction, molestation and murder are driving apoplectic parents to push for increasingly draconian legislation. Granted, even one victim is too many, but the hype made me wonder: What are the actual odds of falling prey to a pervert behind the bushes at the playground? How many sex offenders are really out there?

My investigation began at New York's searchable online Sex Offender Subdirectory. Are any of my neighbors pervs? To find out, the Web site informed me, I would first have to provide the state with my name and address. "This identifying information ... is collected to identify any pattern or practice of misuse of sex offender registration information such as the commission of a criminal act against a registered sex offender or any attempt to falsely portray an individual as a sex offender." This is a prudent practice given that pitchfork-wielding hysterics have beaten up and even killed parolees they found in the database, but I'm not telling the state jack. Call me a hypocrite, but the idea is to snoop on other people.

In any case, I was able to determine that New York's sex offenders are comparative slouches. If it's pervs you're after, says the comprehensive 2003 U.S. Department of Justice report "Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994," California is the place to start. A third of the nation's sex criminals reside in California, the national capital of sex crime, birthplace of Megan's Law and the site of Polly Klaas' infamous 1993 kidnap-murder. Since Arnold Schwarzenegger's regime isn't as finicky as New York about protecting the privacy rights of ex-cons, I was able to search MegansLawCa.gov for dirty old men living near the apartment I used to rent in Berkeley.

"Compared to non-sex offenders released from state prisons," the Justice Department reports, "released sex offenders were four times more likely to be rearrested for a sex crime." Wow, those guys are like Jason and Freddy combined! Why don't we just lock them up forever? Oh, right--because we need their cells for potheads, silly! Anyway, it turns out that recidivism isn't the huge problem politicians would have us believe, although 5.3 percent of sex offenders were rearrested within three years after their release from prison, compared to 1.3 percent of other criminals. (In other words, 94.7 percent and 98.7 percent respectively don't reoffend.)

At the time of my Web search, I found 12 registered sex offenders within a mile radius of my former residence, none of whom have been charged with a second crime. One, a 59-year-old man, exposed himself to a 15-year-old girl. Two more men, both in their upper 40s, had raped adults. The remainder were convicted of things like statutory rape; they're not the kind of predator who crawls through your daughter's window. (Strangely, statutory rapists are about eight times less likely than child molesters to get paroled.)

In the liberal bastion of Berkeley, in other words, one out of approximately 4,000 residents qualifies as the kind of dude you wouldn't want your kid to solicit for the United Way. But the children of California, if you believe a report by the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, "Prisoners and Parolees 2004," are at greater risk of being killed than molested. In 2004 California arrested 56 ex-cons (including one woman) for committing "lewd acts with children" and 138 for murder and manslaughter. Alameda County, which includes Berkeley, has four times as many paroled killers as rapists--but Megan's Law doesn't apply to them.

So how do the odds of your child being molested compare to his one-in-4.5 million chance of getting hit by lightning or, for that matter, his 1-in-228 chance of dying in a car crash? Roughly 1-in-12, according to a 1997 study by the National Institute of Justice. But "stranger abuse comprises only a small percentage of total victimizations," says the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. This conforms to common sense. Since there are roughly 200,000 convicted sex offenders running free, compared to roughly two million victims, there's no way strangers are responsible for most assaults. Family members are the greater danger.

Sexual assault of children is a major problem, but no one has come up with an effective and politically palatable way to prevent it. Treatment programs have reduced recidivism rates by as much as 80 percent, but "get tough on crime" prosecutors and legislators have repeatedly cut their budgets. Meanwhile, legalized harassment like New Jersey's no-trick-or-treat law makes great political hay while lulling us into a false sense of security. As lawyer John S. Furlong told the Associated Press in response to the new Halloween law, "It's unfair, expensive and inane. In other words, it's just stupid. Nobody is going to be safer. Nobody is going to be less at risk."

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