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Sex Offenders, Risk, and Money

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The recent news of the arrest of Michael Devlin in the kidnapping of two children has many thinking about sex offenders once again. The term “sex offender” has taken on a life of its own these days, with media outlets eagerly recounting the number of kidnappings that happen each year and the thousands of people mandated to various sex registries. But there are a couple of observations that should be noted about the Devlin case and the many others:


1. Although it was initially reported that Devlin had been arrested for sex crimes in the past, this turned out not to be true. Perhaps this mistake was due to the public perception that such offenders always have sexual convictions in their past. Likewise, many people are now questioning how someone accused of such a terrible crime could go unnoticed for so long. Popular wisdom holds that sex offenders fit a certain "profile" but these leads me to the next point:


2. We don’t know much about sex offenders. Anyone who has done serious empirical research knows that federal grant money drives research. Neither the National Institute of Mental Health nor the Department of Justice sponsors serious funding on sex offenders. Some may say this is a good thing, given the numerous other priorities that these agencies must contend with; but the simple fact is that from a scientific perspective, we don’t know much. What we do know comes mostly from Canada, where the government has dedicated funding on sex offenders. And this leads to:


3. In ascertaining risk of recidivism among sex offenders, we know some things. Namely, we know that certain factors, mostly “static factors” (i.e., historical things that cannot be changed) account for the largest variance of risk among this population. These factors include: number of prior sex offenses, whether the victim is a family member of not, number of victims, sadism, whether the preparatory is married or single, psychopathy, and whether the victims were male. Many of these risk factors are common sense, perhaps some are not. The take-home point is, however, that in measuring risk in sex offenders is essentially measuring their deviance. The risk factors are historical, and hence, unchangeable. What that means for treatment seems obvious in many respects. That said, not all sex offenders are the same. Which leads to:


4. The sex offender label is a powerful one. I cannot imagine a worse label to have. And for those who engage in such reprehensible behavior, perhaps, deservedly so. But the label is being applied too broadly, I think. The man who kidnaps young boys ostensibly for the purpose creating a sex slave is different than the middle-aged female teacher that seduces her high school student. Both are guilty – not doubt. But equating the former with the latter is a mistake because in doing so, we have created a fiction whereby we forego what we know about sexual deviance (see point #3) in favor an entertainment menu that feasts upon the latest story of sex abuse. This distorts what is happening and prioritizes amusement over fact – something we shouldn’t do when children are involved. And finally:


5. If sex offenders are such a public threat (and I think there’s good evidence that many are), then the USDOJ should spend precious research dollars on understanding it. All sex offenders will not be given life-sentences and it behooves us to better understand how we can best manage the risk they pose to our most vulnerable. It’s time for us to put our money where our mouth is.

7 Comments

It is very easy to simply say, "These people are sick." They are. But since resources are limited, resources should be targeted at stopping dangerous offenders.

It is very good to hear that the Devlin kidnappings had a happy ending.

Indeed many are dangerous and we should understand better which offenders pose the most risk.

I would think that the kidnapper types would be the most dangerous, i.e., like the killer of Dru Sjodin. I don't think you can ever rehabilitate those types. I would think also, on a related point, that people who do home invasions (i.e., burglaries with people in the house) would be exceedingly dangerous as well, given the possibilities of sexual abuse.

I think also some thought ought to be given to careful gradations of sentences with respect to crimes. For example, the penalty for burglary with no one in the dwelling should be far less than the penalties for home invasion. And of course, any crime committed with a firearm needs to be punished harshly.

Steven Erickson writes, "The recent news of the arrest of Michael Devlin in the kidnapping of two children has many thinking about sex offenders once again. As noted in various news outlets, Devlin has at least two prior arrests for sex offences and was a registered sex offender....1. Devlin was a repeat sex offender."

I think this has been debunked, has it not? My understanding is that the early media reports have it wrong, and there is another Michael Devlin who is a registered sex offender. Unless I am mistaken, of all of the terrible, monstrous, worthless things this person is, registered sex offender is not among them.

From today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

"Investigators say they are puzzled that Devlin never has been accused of lesser offenses, which tend to be found among people who work their way up the crime ladder to child abduction.....
Although Devlin had several traffic tickets and was sued in 1999 over four years worth of unpaid state taxes, investigators have found nothing that would have put him on their radar."

[The post has been corrected. Thanks for pointing this out. -- KS]

Mr. Elliot may have spoken too soon. Devlin is a person of interest in another disappearance.

On the contrary, Mr. Federalist. While Devlin may indeed be a person of interest in another disappearance, it is a fact that he was not a registered sex offender. I'm just correcting the record.

Mr. Elliot: Well, you got me. Of course, the larger point was that Devlin didn't have much of a record, then graduated to kidnapping and likely child molestation, which is unusual.

Well, it may be that rather than an unusual case, Mr. Devlin simply got away with killing a young boy 16 years ago.

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