Monday, May 07, 2007

Megan's Law Might Not Work

This story is an example of the kind of dilemma that lies at the heart of a lot of social decisions we have to make, including how to approach a topic like sex education. The question is this: how do you distinguish between choices that give measurable good results and choices that seem, by instantaneous "common sense," like they should give good results, but don't?

So, say, you want teens to abstain from having sex for as long as they can, and you have access to their little brains through the schools. "Common sense" of a certain type says you directly order them not to have sex. This is a straight-line solution, what you are saying should lead directly to the goal you wish for. In fact, from a certain folk-psychological perspective it would seem wrong not to tell teens to abstain from sex.

On the other hand, a bunch of research shows that teens who are told not to have sex, e.g., those who have had abstinence-only sex-ed, even when they pledged to remain virgins, are no less likely than other teens to have sex.

We witness a sort of moral outrage when educators want to talk about things that do not seem to directly advance toward the intended goal. For instance, some think it is better to give teens information so they can make smart choices -- hoping that the smart choice will be abstinence. And, of course, those educators know that half of teens have had sex by the time they leave high school, and so it is a good idea to teach them how to make that choice, the one we hope they won't take, as safe as possible.

More complicated, less direct, better.

This article isn't about sex ed. This one is about Megan's Law, a law that requires law enforcement to identify sex offenders to the media, including the Internet. The idea is that if you know where the perverts are, you can protect your children from them, and in some cases people have used this information to drive people out of their neighborhoods.

This is a direct, "common sense" approach: identify the bad guys so they can't do bad stuff to children.

Turns out, it might not really do anything to protect actual children.
New Jersey's pioneering Megan's Law, which costs millions of dollars to alert citizens when sex offenders move nearby, may not make children safer, new research suggests.

A federally funded study under way in Trenton is trying to determine whether Megan's Law is worth the cost of its "enormously expensive" monitoring and enforcement requirements, said Phillip Witt, a consultant on the study.

A declining trend of sex attacks on children began before the law took effect and has continued, raising the suggestion that New Jersey's Megan's Law - one of the first laws of its kind in the nation - may not have influenced the trend, researchers say.

"We don't know whether Megan's Law really works," said Witt, who helped create the risk-assessment system used by New Jersey's courts to classify sex offenders.

"Just a few studies have looked at whether community notification laws are effective," he said. "I believe they have very little effect." N.J. study scrutinizes Megan's Law effect

There is, I hate to say it, a certain ... reaction ... to anything having to do with children. Everybody agrees that everything possible should be done to protect children from harm of any sort. The problem is that the reaction is a little bit easy to manipulate, and decisions that may possibly, according to "common sense" result in harm to any child get rejected outright before they are seriously considered.

Put it this way: can you imagine what politician wants to come out against Megan's Law?

See what I mean?
The $38,252 study by the state Department of Corrections appears to be one of the nation's first attempts to analyze whether Megan's Laws make children safer from sex criminals. The study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, the Justice Department's research branch, is expected to be finished early next year.

One phase has ended. It charted sex offenses against children in the decade before 1994 and in the decade after. Researchers said they were surprised to find that a steady decline in sex crimes across New Jersey had begun in 1991 - three years before Megan's Law.

Sex offenses against children have also declined since Megan's Law was enacted, but there has been no way to know whether that's because of the law.

"Sex-offender rates are down, and we can't attribute it to Megan's Law," said Kristen Zgoba, a Corrections Department researcher leading the study. "Is it worth the amount of money and manpower we're pouring into it?"

Nationally, sex offenses against children fell 49 percent between 1990 and 2004, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Meanwhile, the broad category of violent crime in the United States also plunged, according to government figures.

Wow. Fell 49 percent. That means the rates are about half what they were in 1990. That is significant.
"Something obviously changed that needs to be explained," said Lisa Jones of the Crimes Against Children Research Center.

Any number of factors could have led to the declines, Jones said. She cited economic prosperity during the 1990s; increased numbers of police, social workers and offenders in jail; and widespread introduction of antidepressant drugs in the late 1980s.

The decline in sex offenses has led some researchers to question whether Megan's Law has had any impact, and whether its enormous cost can be justified.

There's more here, you might want to look at the arguments for and against.

My position here is just that these kinds of decisions need to be made dispassionately and objectively, as hard as that may be. It's good that they're looking at the data, it's good that the molestation rates have dropped so much. But it's an emotional issue that no politician will want to be in the middle of. You can say, "The law is ineffective, let's get rid of it," but somebody running against you is going to say, "My opponent wants to change the law to hide the identities of sexual predators, so that they can more easily prey on our innocent children."

Unfortunately, that kind of thinking has such intense emotional appeal -- it can be processed instantly, with an obvious conclusion as long as you don't think too much about it -- that it is hard to frame a persuasive argument to defeat it. That isn't the way to govern a country, that's all I'm saying.


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