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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Transparency, Context, and the Sex Offender Registry

A couple weeks ago, after receiving some court documents from an eager reader, I questioned the usefulness of the sex offender registry. The wise Dr. Newquist supported a point that guides North Dakota law, that the registry can do more harm than good and quite possibly turn some relatively harmless offenders into more desperate, dangerous criminals.

According to an August 2009 Economist article, the Georgia Sex Offender Registration Review Board sampled its registry and concluded that 65% of folks on the list "posed little threat." 30% were "potentially threatening," and 5% were "clearly dangerous."

Social media researcher danah boyd speaks to the Gov 2.0 Expo about sex offender registries as an example of how government transparency is not enough: we can release lots of data, but we must include context and help people develop media literacy so they can properly interpret that data.

Boyd provides a draft of the presentation text. Among the important passages:

The problem with the registry is not its intention. Of course we want to give people the tools to protect their children. The problem is also not simply one of transparency. In fact, the transparency of these lists allows us to call into question how our laws are enforced. The problems that stem from the registry stem from the fact that people misinterpret what the data means. When the list of registered sex offenders is made available out of context, it's easy for people to misinterpret what they see. And boy do they ever. In most of your minds, a registered sex offender is automatically Evil Incarnate. So when someone has that Scarlett Letter attached to their chests, they are immediately judged without the circumstances and situation being understood. Transparency may allow us to see who's registered, but for this information to be used effectively, it needs to be communicated in context. In short, we need people to not just have access to the data, but have access to the context surrounding the data [danah boyd, "Transparency Is Not Enough," Gov 2.0 Expo, 2010.05.26].

Boyd also notes that she has done research that adds some important context to the statistics about the danger of sexual solicitations minors face on the Internet:

Consider the statistic from 2006 that 1 in 7 minors are sexually solicited online. This statistic flew around the press and was employed by Attorneys General across the U.S. to argue that the Internet is dangerous for children. This statistic was from a highly reputable source - the Crimes Against Children Research Center. The problem is not the statistic; it is accurate. It's what it implies without further clarification. Most people interpret this statistic as suggesting that 1 in 7 minors are sexually solicited by older sketchy adults seeking to meet minors offline for sex. Yet, over 90% of sexual solicitations are from other minors or young adults and 69% of solicitations involve no attempt at offline contact. Finally, the researchers used the term solicitation to refer to any communication of a sexual nature, including sexual harassment and flirtation [boyd, 2010].

When boyd publicized this research, a state attorney general called and told her to "go find different data." When she stuck by her research, that AG proceeded to trash her in the press.

The lesson here is not that we can't trust statistics or that we shouldn't look to data. Quite the opposite: the lesson here is that when we get statistics and data, we need to get even more information to put the data in proper context.

1 comment:

  1. She makes good points. A few years ago I bought and then rented a house and the first tenant called about the time she was ready to move in to ask me why I hadn't told her about the sex offender that lived next door. I didn't know (warning, it's not on the disclosure form so ask as this was the reason this seller moved and of course didn't tell me). A social worker contact she had believed it was a serious offense although at that time the list at the police station were only their names without their crimes. I had to write and pay for a copy of the court action from another county. Of all things it was a crime against an infant. People in town and other neighbors had been unconcerned because they believed the victim was a girlfriend just under age that he went on to marry. Too little information allowed a positive story to go unchallenged. Consequently, this tenant lived there for 3 years and ended up feeling like he was a good neighbor. Today more specifics are available on line by our state, but it would be helpful to have more information or links on the site to better explain the numbers, such as how many people re-offend, what percentage and types of crimes are within families, and what to do after a sex crime, what percentage of offenders are believed to be on the lists. I read a statistic that 90% of sex offenders were victims of sex crimes themselves. We feel such sympathy for the victim and complete animosity for the perpetrator, but if that statistic is true, and there is such a direct correlation, should we feel a little differently? Are we following up after the crime to make sure the victims all get the right kind of therapy to break this cycle? It must also be pointed out that although 90% of the perpetrators were victims (again if this data was correct), only 10% of these victims went on to to commit crimes. But as an end result of my experience, I have wondered if the lists as we have them today could create a false sense of security. The risk is probably not the person next to you. It's the people you trust or the people you don't know. As she says, context is needed.


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