Thursday, January 31, 2013

There is always more to the story

A newly released study by a professor at Arizona State University is suggesting that people deemed “high risk sex offenders” are more likely than low risk sex offenders to live in what he called “school zones”. The media will certainly milk this story for what it's worth, accepting its implications at face value. But there is more to this study than meets the eye.

                This geographical study tracked the movements of registered sex offenders in Hamilton County, Ohio (Cincinnati) from 2005 to 2007. The study found that people forced to register were far more likely to move than the average person, and that people who were considered “Tier 3” offenders, the so-called high risk category, were 3.9% more likely than Tier-1 (“low risk”) offenders to live in a school zone. Obviously, the research study is implying that high risk sex offenders are somehow violating the law and are intentionally living closer to schools for the purposes of reoffending.

                I know better.

                I know because for the past 10 years (with the exception of my 14 months living in Alabama), I have lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. Around the time the study began, I was classified as a “Tier 1” offender, and arbitrarily reclassified as a “Tier 3” offender on the basis of moving from a state where everybody registers for life. In June 2004, when I was still considered a tier 1 offender, I moved into a slum property that allegedly met the residency restriction laws of the state of Ohio, 1000 feet from schools and day care centers. For nearly a year, I lived a quiet life, working, paying my bills on time, and keeping to myself as much as possible.

                In the spring of 2005, when I was arbitrarily reclassified, the city determined I was living to close to a business called the “Life Skills Center”. This place offers GED courses for individuals aged 16 to 24, but for the purposes of the state’s residency restriction laws, the Life Skills Center was considered a school, and I fought unsuccessfully to keep my residence. As I stymied the city's case against me as long as I could, I called well over 100 places to try to find a new place to live. After nearly a year, I stumbled upon a new apartment (much bigger than my meager sleeping room at $150 a month) that met the current residency restriction laws.

                Just after Thanksgiving 2006, I moved into my new apartment. I had not even finished unpacking when the city of Cincinnati was debating a new ordinance that would increase citywide residency restrictions to include a number of places not covered by state law – YMCA centers, boys and girls clubs centers, swimming pools, parks, and recreation centers. My first true taste of advocacy was addressing the Cincinnati city Council against the new ordinance. I fought successfully to keep my current residence. The city still passed the ordinance, but dropped parks from its list of banned locations, while grandfathering register citizens so long as they lived in their current residence.

This move was undoubtedly inspired by my personal circumstances. My new residence was close to a place called Triangle Park. It is a city run Park maintained by the Cincinnati Parks and Recreation Commission, but it is not a part in the traditional sense of the word. Triangle Park is nothing more than a stone wall with a small flower garden and a couple of trees, a half-acre peninsula extending at the far corner of the block in which I reside. It is not the kind of Park someone takes her children to play, but to take their dogs to poop. In fact, when I was in the Cincinnati Restoration Church (where we raised funds for the church by selling candy), we referred to that location as the “doo-doo spot”. The park is still a part, no matter what it is called or what purpose it serves. If not for the grandfather clause or the removal of parts from the ordinance, I would have been forced to move again.

                We are too quick to take media accounts or even research at face value without questioning how we came to certain conclusions. This study would have you believe that all sex offenders move to elude detection. That is simply untrue; as a result of social ostracism, threats made against sex offenders, or at times, legal actions from overzealous city prosecutors all play roles in forcing registered citizens to move on a more frequent basis. I am sure this study did not take into account the negative effects of the postcards the city of Cincinnati sends to individuals when a sex offender moves into the neighborhood.

                The implication of this study assumes sex offenders move close to schools for the purpose of obtaining victims. This is simply untrue. When Cincinnati sought to pass their own ordinance in December 2006, they passed out a color-coded map of restricted zones within the city. There were a number of overlapping circles which gobbled up potentially available housing in the vast majority of areas where sex offenders could afford to live. In places like Over-The-Rhine, where many of the poorest residents tended to live before the urban renewal project started, there were no spaces where a registered citizen could legally live at all under the new ordinance.

                Cincinnati was not the only city in Hamilton County to have an increased residency restriction law. The city of Reading, for example, is an independent suburb of Cincinnati with its own police force in city Council. The city passed a 2000 foot restriction which made virtually the entire city off-limits to any person forced to register as a sex offender. Another suburb, Norwood, also had its own residency law restrictions. Did the study take these ever-changing laws into effect when asserting that sex offenders move more frequently in the average citizen?

                In my personal case, I did not move by choice, but by law. My motivation for choosing a new residence was necessity coupled with affordability. I simply looked or a place I can afford to live that met the legal requirements of the law.

                In recent months, there have been a number of questionable studies. A few months ago, a study from Utica College in New York claimed a large number of sex offenders were intentionally lying about their residents, allegedly based upon computer software used to determine credit card fraud. To this date, the researchers have never formally published the results including methodology in any peer-reviewed publication, yet the story spread like wildfire and accepted as fact. Nobody questioned the validity of this study or how they came to this conclusion. I can understand the reason why, as many research studies use complex algorithms and algebraic formulas to come to their conclusions. Sometimes reading a research paper requires an advanced mathematics degree to understand the conclusions they arrive at based upon the numbers they crunch.

                If independent research was not bad enough, influences from the victim industry Advocates with no formal training offer more misinformation to further confuse the uninformed public. A very recent example is a much publicized graphic from the Enliven Project which suggested that roughly 9 of every 10 sex crimes are unreported, with a very small number of falsely accused. This graphic is very inaccurate. The people who created this graphic claim they used reports like the national crime victimization surveys (NCVS), yet the current NCVS states that only about half of sex crimes are unreported. However, there are some major flaws even with the NCVS surveys-- they rely on self-reports and include the broader term “attempted rapes” which are broadly defined as any situation in which a person feels that they were in danger of being raped. Even Anna Salter, a longtime victim industry advocate, has stated that self-reports are notoriously unreliable and lead to incredibly inflated statistics. The NCVS is indeed a self-report survey.

                Unfortunately, these results of these studies are easily misinterpreted, or in many other cases such as the graphic from the Enliven Project, the studies are flat-out false. Who is going to take the time to critique these assumptions? It is obvious the average citizen is not going to question the media. We are all too eager to accept something as fact when it is attuned to our personal belief systems, especially when it involves something or someone we particularly hate.

                However, in order for true conflict resolution to take place, we must look beyond our preconceived notions and questioned the things we have been taught to believe with an open mind. It is difficult, but not impossible to look outside of our own way of thinking. Only by looking at the issue from all sides can we have any hope of coming to a true solution rather than a mere Band-Aid for a long-standing societal issue.