Those damn statistics again

By Sandy . . . The Alpena News, in reporting about the situation in Michigan where deadlines for registry reform set by the court have been ignored by Michigan legislators, used the opportunity to “enlighten” the public with some statistics about persons on the registry.

“Data released in May by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates sex offenders are less likely to be arrested than other types of offenders. About two-thirds of released sex offenders studied were arrested within nine years of their release, compared to 84% of other released prisoners,” they write.

In spite of this being presented as a “good” statistic for registry reform advocates – less likely than others — anyone writing about this finding should clarify that many of those arrests are for crimes that apply to no one on earth except for persons required to be on a sex offender registry. A plethora of these various infractions are classified as “failure to register” or “failure to comply” and include offenses such as failing to add a new car or report a change of address in a timely manner, often two or three days.

In many states these oversights can land one in jail. Several years ago in Texas, Josh Gravens was on the verge of being behind bars, facing up to 25 years’ imprisonment, for a minor technicality – Failure to Comply with Registration Requirements, which in Texas and other states is a felony. He was at the registration office to update a change of address when he was arrested because he hadn’t followed the procedure of registering the new address seven days before the move, which is the law.

As the move was precipitated by a sudden marital separation, Josh hadn’t known seven days previously that he would be moving. Didn’t matter. This had occurred once before during a month’s work trip when he failed to register his temporary address in another state in time, so he was a repeat offender in this area.

In some states, the list of reportable items is extensive, and thus the risk of oversight and violation is high. In Florida, the requirements are name; social security number; age; race; sex; date of birth; height; weight; tattoos or other identifying marks; hair color; eye color; photograph; address of legal residence (or temporary residence); electronic mail addresses; Internet identifiers; each Internet identifier’s corresponding website homepage or application software name; home telephone numbers; cellular telephone numbers; employment information; driver’s license or Florida ID information; the make, model, color, vehicle identification number (VIN), and license tag number of all vehicles owned.

Not content, however, with the two-thirds finding, the Alpena News goes on to include this: “However, released sex offenders were three times more likely to be re-arrested for rape and sexual assault than other released prisoners.”

Including this factual information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ report without putting it in context is a great disservice to the public and one which has been protested more than once.

The Maynard Law Office, in analyzing the BJS report, wrote, “…there are other details in the study that impact our presentation of recidivism rates. While felons without a sex offense conviction were less likely to be arrested for a subsequent sex offense (2.3% v. 7.7%), there are a lot more of those ex-felons (381,093) than sex offenders (20,195) being released into the community. So in terms of risk to the public, a citizen is much more likely (six times more likely) to be sexually assaulted by an ex-felon without a sex offense than one with a sex offense.”

And is it really shocking that, “…released sex offenders were three times more likely to be re-arrested for rape and sexual assault than other released prisoners”? This is true of any category of felon. Released burglars are more likely to be re-arrested for burglary than those whose offense was not burglary. Released arsonists are more likely to be re-arrested for a new arson offense than those with crimes other than arson. And so on.

Advocates for maintaining the current system, those who oppose laws based on facts and dumping the registry for a system that at least has a chance of working, use every means at their disposal to further their agenda, and statements like “Two-thirds were arrested within nine years” and “Three time as likely to commit future sexual assaults” fit their agenda just fine.

But those statements only tell a part of the story. Context matters.

A piece published earlier this year at by Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. made use of those findings in order to make his case for the dangerousness of those on sexual offense registries. Not satisfied however, Mr. Sipes resorts to the tired old appeal about the high percentage of unreported sexual crime, writing, “Please keep in mind that sex offenses are vastly underreported and, because of their non-stranger component, problematic to investigate and prove. This finding is an undercount.”

They are problematic in other ways too. Indeed, this particular bit of information doesn’t appear to have any actual bearing on the issue or the findings.

Since approximately 95% of new sexual crime [p.15] is committed by those with no previous sexual crime convictions, unreported offenses have little to no impact on re-offense rates. Indeed, if every sexual crime were reported, there is no evidence that the rate of re-offense would alter in the slightest. The very reason that so much sexual assault goes unreported is that it is committed by those with family or other close connections to the victims, those who have most likely never entered the criminal justice system at all. Simply put, it has no bearing.

Mark Twain said, crediting it to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Those who write on issues that impact the public and affect the lives of millions of people have an obligation to use statistics accurately, honestly, truthfully, and ethically.


Sandy Rozek

Written by 

Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.