Weighing the Rights of Convicted Sex Offenders

Dr. Fred Berlin, one of the nation's foremost experts on pedophilia and founder of the John Hopkins Sexual Disorder Clinic, reacts to a new Georgia law that puts tough restrictions on sexual offenders.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'M Farai Chideya. I'm sitting in for Ed Gordon.

A tough new law in Georgia requires convicted child molesters to move at least 1,000 feet from school bus stops. The legislation is due to take effect on Saturday, but eight registered sex offenders in the state will not have to find a new place to live. A federal judge temporarily blocked the legislation after a civil rights group sued on their behalf.

More on that case in moment. But first, one the nation's foremost experts on pedophilia on what we don't know about sexual predators. Dr. Fred Berlin is founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorder Clinic in Baltimore, Maryland. Here is Dr. Berlin in his own words.

Dr. FRED BERLIN (Founder, Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorder Clinic): We do recognize there is a role for treatment and we have both a criminal justice approach and a public health approach to that issue. Now, when it comes to something like pedophilia, we seem to think that we can just punish it away or legislate it away.

And let me make it clear that we do need have a strong criminal justice approach to it. But the idea that we can somehow solve all the problems associated with pedophilia by restricting people to where they are going to live is analogous to thinking that we can solve the problems of alcoholism by passing a law that says any that anyone who has ever driven a car while intoxicated can't live near a bar.

It's as very naive idea in my point of view and one that is very unlikely to be successful in protecting the community. Just as there are some drunk drivers who are alcoholics, there are some sex offenders who are sexually disordered. People can be sexually disordered either with respect to the kind of behavior they crave. There are some people, for example, who crave sex in a sadistic way, with a pain and suffering of another person is what arouses them sexually. That's obviously a very serious and dangerous situation. And there are people who are sexually disordered in terms of the kind of partners that they are attracted to sexually.

Individuals, for instance, who have know attraction to adults and recurrently crave sex with children, that person would have an exclusive pedophilic sort of sexual orientation. And again, for obvious reasons, that can be of grave concern if the person is going to act on those attractions.

The United States Department of Justice, because of many of the newer laws having to do with sex offenders, has actually taken a look at the recidivism rate of that population as a group. And contrary to public misperception, contrary to what's driving most of the current legislation, as a group, sex offenders actually have a lower rate or recidivism than people who commit other crimes of serious criminal acts and that's quite different from what most people tend to presume.

We published a large study - now I'm talking about men in treatment - of over 600 individuals who, in the past, committed significant sexual offenses. Over 400 had a diagnosis of pedophilia. It was a relatively short-term follow up of a little bit over five years, but during that five year period better than 90 percent of the of men who were in treatment were not accused of a subsequent sexual offense.

Now, we may have missed a few things, but that's a far cry again from the common public misperception that most of these men would quickly get back into trouble. That simply wasn't the case. I believe that many of these individuals who did succeed did so because they could get a fresh start, they were accepted in their communities, they could work, they weren't feeling stigmatized. And to the extent that some of this new laws are going to interfere with them being able to do that, inadvertently they can actually be counterproductive, making the situation for society, in some cases, perhaps even worse rather than better.

CHIDEYA: That, again, was Dr. Fred Berlin. He heads the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic in Baltimore, Maryland.

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