Learning to Identify Repeat Sex Offenders

Sex offenders frighten communities largely because they're seen as destined to repeat their crimes. Alex Chadwick talks to law professor and sex offender expert John LaFond about sex offender statistics, and the ways of identifying repeat offenders.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

John LaFond is a professor of law at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He's the author of several books on sexual offenders and how society deals with them. He joins us now by telephone from Florida.

Professor LeFond, thank you for being with us on DAY TO DAY.

Professor JOHN LaFOND (University of Missouri-Kansas City): You're quite welcome.

CHADWICK: How big a problem is this, sex offenders going back into the community? And I guess the question is, how likely are they to commit these crimes again?

Prof. LaFOND: Well, most sex offenders do return to the community. That's a given fact. It's also true that most sex offenders do not commit another sex crime. As a group, they have a relatively low rate of sexual re-offending. Studies put that rate at approximately 13 to 20 percent. They are less likely to commit a sex crime than assaulters, burglars and other violent offenders are likely to commit their crimes. We do, however, have to worry about a small group of dangerous sex offenders who do pose a high risk of committing another sex crime. And those are the offenders on whom we should focus most of our attention.

CHADWICK: You write that this is a fairly small group within this subset of sex offenders, that they are identifiable. How can you know that someone is likely to try this again?

Prof. LaFOND: Well, researchers have used insurance industry strategies called actuarial studies, and they've identified some of the common characteristics this group shares: early age of offending, deviant sexual interest, multiple victims, boy victims, psychopathic personality, those sorts of things. And so we can actually do actuarial risk assessment based on past historical events to create a mathematical statement of probability that some sex offenders are, in fact, very dangerous.

CHADWICK: I may be wrong but my general impression is that, in fact, it's very hard for sex offenders to get over these urges and that there's a general sense that they are likely to repeat these crimes. Isn't that a widely held view?

Prof. LaFOND: I think the public is overly concerned. I understand the fear. Certainly the media portrayal of terrible sex crimes that we all wish had never occurred do create a sense of urgency, a sense of anger and a sense of frustration. But, in fact, there is research indicating that treatment for sex offenders may be effective.

CHADWICK: But you read about a character like this man who's been arrested in San Jose, Dean Arthur Schwartzmiller, his multiple series of arrests in different states, his multiple series of charges; you read the details of something like this and you think, `How is this person walking around?'

Prof. LaFOND: We do have to do a much better job, in my view, of dealing with those dangerous sex offenders who come back into the community. Today we either lock sex offenders up for a long period of time or simply dump them into the community subject to minimal information control: primarily a duty to register with the police and community notification when appropriate.

CHADWICK: But if a sex offender does not comply, is there someone following up after their prison sentence has been served, saying, `Did we get a note back from the state registry saying, indeed, this person registered?'

Prof. LaFOND: My sense is that we devote very little resources to the enforcement of these laws and that compliance over time will decrease.

CHADWICK: John LaFond is a professor of law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the author of "Preventing Sexual Violence: How Society Should Cope with Sex Offenders."

Professor LaFond, thank you for being with us.

Prof. LaFOND: Thank you.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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