Public policy
11:00 am
Fri April 6, 2012

Number of sex offenders in your community may be overestimated

Don’t be too quick to say no to that dream house because of the registered sex-offender next door – he may not even be there.

According to a University of Washington study it turns out that there are actually fewer sex-offenders living in communities around the nation than are listed on online registries for individual communities.

Alissa Ackerman, assistant professor of social work at UW and  lead author of the study, examined the discrepancy between listed sex offenders in communities and whether or not the offender actually lives where he or she is reported.

For instance, Ackerman said her findings show that in Pierce County “it appears that about 10 percent of the people listed on the registry are actually incarcerated.” Pierce County was the only area in Washington studied.

The study found much bigger discrepancies in other states around the country (See below).

The trouble it causes

According to Ackerman there are two reigning issues created by the overestimated number of sex-offenders.

With inaccurate information provided, it becomes very difficult for the public to discern risk and delineate who needs extra concern.

The second issue is wasting taxpayer dollars. When state funding is tied to the number of registered sex-offenders listed on registries, it can over-allocate funds to track, control and hold them accountable.

However, Ackerman said, “the social cost of discerning the risks is more of an issue than tax payer cost."

Inflation of numbers in registries may be caused by differences in data collection and reporting procedures, varying from state to state, she said.

The state’s role

Sgt. Paul Mahlum said the King County Sheriff’s office recognizes that discrepancies do arise and are a problem.

“When we know that a sex offender is not living where he allegedly says he is, then we file a case with a detective followed by a criminal investigation and charge them with a crime.”

Upon being re-released into communities, registered sex offenders are required to participate in a rehabilitation program making sure that offenders are complainant and are given the needed tools to succeed, Mahlum said.

Benefits of 'big brother'

In Washington, level one and two sex-offenders are checked on every 90 days and once a year for level three.

“Hopefully if sex offenders believe they are being watched and the community is aware of them, high risk offenders will be less likely to re-offend if in fact they believe that big brother is watching them,” says Mahlum.

For high-level sex-offenders, the sheriff's office will send out public notification bulletins or hold public meeting forums.

“We try to make people aware of what the risks are. We don’t want anybody to overreact and live in fear, we want them to have basic knowledge of the laws and why we do what we do,” says Mahlum.

Watch Systems is the online service used by sheriff’s offices across the state of Washington to track and monitor sex-offenders.

Top five states

The UW Today report on the study listed data from five states:

  •  Florida had the greatest discrepancy, reporting 56,784 sex offenders when only 22,877 – a 60 percent difference – were living in Florida communities.
  • New York, at 52 percent, had the second-highest discrepancy, listing 32,930 offenders in the registry with just 15,950 living in the city.
  • Illinois had a 48 percent difference, with 25,088 registered offenders and 13,066 actually residing in the community.
  • Georgia had a 36 percent difference, 20,212 listed on the registry and 7,201 living in the community.
  • At 25 percent, Texas had the lowest discrepancy, with 49,786 actual residents from the 66,121 sex offenders listed.

What is the risk?

About sex offenders in general, Ackerman added that more than 90 percent of victims know their offender, and listed family members, stepparents, close friends and acquaintances as common perpetrators.

"We look at strangers on the sex offender registry websites, but it's really the people who we know who we need to worry about."

The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Crime and Justice.

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