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A new government report reinforces harmful misconceptions about people convicted of sex offenses. Here's our take on how to parse the data.
Guest post by Wendy Sawyer, Prison Policy Initiative*

By now, most people who pay any attention to criminal justice reform know better than to label people convicted of drug offenses “drug offenders,” a dehumanizing label that presumes that these individuals will be criminals for life. But we continue to label people “sex offenders” – implying that people convicted of sex offenses are somehow different.

A new report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics should put an end to this misconception: The report, Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from State Prison: A 9-Year Follow-Up (2005-2014), shows that people convicted of sex offenses are actually much less likely than people convicted of other offenses to be rearrested or to go back to prison.

But you wouldn’t know this by looking at the report’s press release and certain parts of the report itself, which reinforce inaccurate and harmful depictions of people convicted of sex offenses as uniquely dangerous career criminals. The press release and report both emphasize what appears to be the central finding: “Released sex offenders were three times as likely as other released prisoners to be re-arrested for a sex offense.” That was the headline of the press release. The report itself re-states this finding three different ways, using similar mathematical comparisons, in a single paragraph.

What the report doesn’t say is that the same comparisons can be made for the other offense categories: People released from sentences for homicide were more than twice as likely to be rearrested for a homicide; those who served sentences for robbery were more than twice as likely to be rearrested for robbery; and those who served time for assault, property crimes, or drug offenses were also more likely (by 1.3-1.4 times) to be rearrested for similar offenses. And with the exception of homicide, those who served sentences for these other offense types were much more likely to be rearrested at all.


The new BJS report, unfortunately, is a good example of how our perception of sex offenders is distorted by alarmist framing, which in turn contributes to bad policy. That this publication was a priority for BJS at all is revealing: this is the only offense category out of all of the offenders included in the recidivism study to which BJS has devoted an entire 35-page report, even though this group makes up just 5% of the release cohort. This might make sense if it was published in an effort to dispel some myths about this population, but that’s not what’s happening here.

Framing aside, the recidivism data presented in the BJS report can offer helpful perspective on the risks posed by people after release. Whether measured as rearrest, reconviction, or return to prison, BJS found that people whose most serious commitment offense was rape or sexual assault were much less likely to reoffend after release than those who served time for other offense types. The BJS report shows that within 9 years after release:
  • Fewer than 67% of those who served time for rape or sexual assault were rearrested for any offense, making rearrest 20% less likely for this group than all other offense categories combined (84%). Only those who served time for homicide had a lower rate of rearrest (60%). 
  • People who served sentences for sex offenses were much less likely to be rearrested for another sex offense (7.7%) than for a property (24%), drug (18.5%), or public order (59%) offense (a category which includes probation and parole violations).
  • Only half of those who served sentences for rape or sexual assault had a new arrest that led to a conviction (for any offense), compared to 69% of everyone released in 2005 (in the 29 states with data).
While the data were more limited on returns to prison,1 the study found that within 5 years after release, people who had served sentences for rape or sexual assault also had a lower return-to-prison rate (40%) compared to the overall rate for all offense types combined (55%). BJS notes that some of these returns to prison were likely for parole or probation violations, but because of data limitations, it is impossible to say how many were for new offenses, much less how many were for rape or sexual assault.

In sum, the BJS data show that people who served time for sex offenses had markedly lower recidivism rates than almost any other group. Yet the data continue to be framed in misleading ways that make it harder to rethink the various harmful and ineffective punishments imposed on people convicted of sex offenses.

The recidivism data suggest that current legal responses to people convicted of sex offenses are less about managing risk than maximizing punishment. The desire for retribution is understandable; unquestionably, rape and sexual assault inflict serious and lasting trauma. But our criminal justice system does a poor job of providing survivors of rape, sexual assault, and other violent crimes what they really want. In a 2016 survey of crime survivors, the Alliance for Safety and Justice found that, “Survivors of violent crime — including victims of the most serious crimes such as rape or murder of a family member — widely support reducing incarceration to invest in prevention and rehabilitation and strongly believe that prison does more harm than good.” But more prison time is the default response: those released after serving sentences for rape and sexual assault served longer sentences, with a median sentence of 5 years (compared to 3 years for all others combined) and more than a quarter serving 10 years or more before release.

And for many people convicted of sex offenses, confinement doesn’t end when their prison sentence does. Twenty states continue to impose indefinite periods of involuntary confinement under civil commitment lawsafter individuals have completed a sentence (or, in some cases, before they are even convicted). Proponents justify the practice as “treatment,” but conditions of civil commitment are punitive and prison-like, and this confinement is hard to justify with the recidivism data we have. The likelihood of post-release arrest for another rape or sexual assault for this group is less than 2% in the first year out of prison, and after 9 years, fewer than 8% have been rearrested for a similar offense. Those who are released at age 40 or older are even less likely to be rearrested for another sex offense, with re-arrest rates about half those of people who are released at age 24 or younger.

After prison, a number of other special restrictions make reentry especially challenging for those who have served sentences for sex offenses, including registration, public notification, and restrictions to residence and employment. (Even before release, some restrictions make it difficult for some people to leave prison when they would otherwise be paroled.) These restrictions tend to cause more problems than they solve. Residence restrictions in particular have contributed to homelessness and other problems in cities where they leave little room for returning citizens. According to a 2015 U.S. Department of Justice brief, “residence restrictions may actually increase offender risk by undermining offender stability and the ability of the offender to obtain housing, work, and family support.”

In another recent academic article, Hanson et al. agree that these additional restrictions are “justified on the grounds of public protection,” even though the underlying assumptions may be wrong: “Individuals are targeted because policy-makers believe they are likely to do it again. This is a testable assumption, and, as it turns out, not entirely true.” Their analysis shows that individual recidivism risk varies widely, can be low enough to be indistinguishable from that of people convicted of non-sex offenses, and drops predictably over time. The data published by BJS track with those findings.

Collectively, the research seems fairly clear: our responses to people convicted of sex offenses do not reflect the actual – generally low – risks they present. Instead of panicking about the small portion who reoffend after release, it’s time we talk more rationally about responses that effectively support desistance from crime – and serve the actual needs of victims of violence.

* Wendy Sawyer is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. This essay is reposted with the kind permission of the Prison Policy Initiative.  

Footnotes
  1. Only 23 states could provide the necessary data for the 5-year follow-up period, and only 17 could do so for the entire time frame. The BJS report only includes return-to-prison rates for the first 5 years after release in the 23 states with the necessary data.
  2. Conversely, it also only captures those behaviors that are caught by police. People who break laws after release but are never arrested would not be captured in recidivism data at all. Police presence and enforcement are therefore factors that affect recidivism statistics, as are prosecutorial decisions (for reconviction rates) and sentencing policies and practices (for reincarceration rates).
  3. While the BJS study compares overall rates of reconviction and returns to prison by most serious commitment offense, only the rearrest data allows us to compare post-release offenses by most serious commitment offense.
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"For years, a group of outcasts in Beatrice, Neb., were convinced they had brutally raped and murdered an elderly woman named Helen Wilson one night in February 1985, even though they couldn’t remember any of it."

That’s the lead of today’s story in the Washington Post, announcing a $28.1 million award to the “Beatrice Six” who spent a collective 70 years in prison before being exonerated a decade ago.

Of interest to this blog’s audience is the role of the police psychologist. As I blogged about back in 2008, Wayne R. Price, PhD saw no ethics conflict in helping to interrogate the suspects even though he had previously provided therapy to two of the young women. Dr. Price reportedly reassured the suspects that their lack of any recollection of the crime was because they had repressed the traumatic memory. He later assisted them in reconstructing the details of their imagined crime.

The Beatrice Six. Credit: Omaha World-Herald
As experts increasingly recognize, false confessions are not all that rare. What was unusual here was that several of the innocent suspects remained convinced of their guilt for years, leading to deep remorse and shame as chronicled by reporter Rachel Aviv in a fascinating New Yorker profile.

“You have a group of people who are led to share the same delusion, at the same time, with major consequences,” the psychiatrist who evaluated the Beatrice Six after their exonerations told Aviv. “Their new beliefs superseded their previous life experiences, like paper covering a rock.”

Joseph White in 2009, two years before his death (Nati Harnik/AP)
Remarkably, only one of the six suspects proved capable of withstanding the interrogative pressure. Although Joseph White remained fully convinced of his innocence throughout the ordeal, he was convicted anyway based on his friends’ false memories.

It was Mr. White's persistence that led to the ultimate exonerations. He repeatedly petitioned for DNA testing of the crime-scene evidence. When the testing was finally done, it implicated a different man, who by this time was long dead of AIDS.

Tragically, Mr. White won't get a penny of the $28.1 million award upheld this week by the U.S. Supreme Court. He died in a refinery accident in 2011, two years after filing his civil-rights lawsuit.

My original blog post from 2008 is HERE. Today’s Washington Post story contains additional background, commentary and links. I highly recommended the 2017 New Yorker investigation of the case. 

Hat tip: Phil T.
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And the answer to the oft-asked question, "If it was so bad, why didn't she report it?"
Calvin Klein ad glorifying group rape
He unzipped his pants, whipped out his penis and thrust it in her face. "Kiss it!" cried others in the dorm room, jeering and taunting. She pushed him away, inadvertently touching his dangling member. Word of the escapade spread rapidly through the university grapevine, humorous for some and unsettling for others. 

The mushrooming allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh share a common denominator: Each took place in full view of other men. These were not furtive attempts to gratify lust. They were (if true) proud demonstrations of male entitlement and power.

As I have written about previously, multiple-offender rape is a distinct type of sexual violence. It is a form of cultural theater, in which the victim serves as a dramatic prop through which men publicly demonstrate their heterosexual masculinity to each other.

In weighing reactions to the Kavanaugh allegations, it is instructive to contrast the two disparate scripts of so-called “gang rape” that I found in a study of media coverage of high-profile cases. When the actors are men of color, we see a Feral Beasts narrative that taps into a deep reservoir of racial fears to cast the offenders as amoral savages viciously ravishing innocent victims. In contrast, with high-status men such as Kavanaugh, a Good Guys script trivializes the event as merely a youthful and isolated indiscretion.

Group rape prelude, DC Comics
But group rape is no youthful mistake. It is functional behavior. It serves a purpose. Masculinity is a fragile identity that must be earned and then repeatedly proven. The public humiliation of females (and in some cases weaker or feminine men) is one dramatic method for publicly demonstrating hegemonic masculinity. Ritualistic conquest of the feminine “other” serves to visibly prove heterosexual masculinity and celebrate gendered power while simultaneously cementing male social bonds through mutual complicity in taboo acts. 

And what better object of display than the penis itself, the instrument of maleness brandished as a weapon to denigrate a drunken woman and establish her gendered powerlessness.

This misogynist performance art is not randomly distributed. As I discussed in my earliest analysis of this phenomenon – an in-depth exploration of an incident in which a group of high school athletes in Long Island, New York sexually assaulted younger male teammates – subcultures that germinate the seeds of group rape share a preoccupation with masculinity, or the extrusion of all things feminine.

Historically, masculinist social norms have thrived in all-male settings such as fraternities, military forces, street gangs, police departments, rock groups, and aggressive sports teams. So it is no coincidence that Judge Kavanaugh came of age in just such an all-male, misogynist milieu.

There were the lascivious Friday morning announcements, usually delivered by a senior:

Kavanaugh (far left) and teammates brag in yearbook about "Renate,"
an unwitting girl from a nearby Catholic girls' school

“After the [football] game, there will be a mixer. Girls from Holy Cross, Holy Child and Visitation ... will ... be ... available.” 

To facilitate this sexual availability, Georgetown boys were in the habit of getting girls “blind drunk” on a concoction of “jungle juice”; to them, girls were nothing but “meat,” one girl recalled. The sexual abuse of girls was so rampant that more than 1,000 alumnae of Holton-Arms, the girls’ school down the road, have signed a letter in support of former alumnae Christine Blasey (Ford), saying her account of Kavanaugh’s attempted rape is entirely consistent with the experiences they too had “heard and lived.”

Most recently, attorney Michael Avenatti (of Stormy Daniels fame) is claiming to possess “significant evidence” from a reputable source that he will shortly reveal of multiple house parties in which Kavanaugh, his buddy Mark Judge, and others would ply vulnerable girls with alcohol in order to pull “trains,” or gang-rape them. Avenatti is not the most desirable source for a bombshell claim like this; he is "a relentless self-promoter" who is obviously thrusting himself into the center of the controversy for his own purposes. But on the other hand, Esquire magazine points out that – bombastic demeanor notwithstanding – he has not been proven wrong yet. Judge’s ex-girlfriend confirms that Judge told her he participated in at least one such train, lending further credence to Avenatti's allegation.

Julie Swetnick, the third accuser
UPDATE 9/26/18 0900:  Avenetti has just released a sworn declaration by his client, Julie Swetnick, who has worked for the IRS and the U.S. Department of the Treasury and holds security clearances. Ms. Swetnick says she was gang raped at a house party attended by Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge. She says she confided in at least two people at the time. She also attended numerous house parties at which the two were among a group of males who drugged girls and then took advantage of them, gang-raping them in bedrooms. She says that Kavanaugh was a "mean drunk" who was verbally and physically abusive to girls, engaging in behaviors "designed to demean, humiliate and embarrass them."

A fourth woman, going by the pseudonym "Elizabeth," also came forward today to describe the "culture of privilege" in Montgomery County. She recalls an incident in which an inebriated Kavanaugh became "obnoxious and crude" with her, to the merriment of his football buddies, causing her to leave the party and avoid him thereafter. 

The reporting penalty
Kavanaugh supporters – including the man who nominated him – have retorted by asking why neither Dr. Blasey nor Deborah Ramirez (the victim of the Yale University penis-dangling incident) reported these offenses when they happened. This is a common question. It comes up all the time at sexual assault trials in which I serve as an expert consultant.

But it is the wrong question.

The correct question is: Why in the world do any (albeit few) young women opt to report sexual assault, when the deck is stacked against them and reporting will most likely compound their suffering?

Overall, only about one out of every three or four sexual assaults is reported to police. The reporting rates are thought to be even lower – as low as 10 percent – for acquaintance rapes of teenage girls and young women. Coming forward is extraordinarily courageous. But from my vantage point in the trenches, I often find myself wondering whether it is perhaps foolhardy as well, stemming from a skewed calculus of the relative risks and benefits. Because at every step – from the police station to the courtroom and beyond – reporting has unintended negative effects on privacy, social and family relations, and even on one’s very sense of self.

As the victim who is brave (or foolhardy) enough to come forward quickly learns, being on the receiving end of gendered power means that you don't control the discourse.

The “lying bitches” unit

First, there is the police problem. Police departments are precisely the type of hypermasculine milieu in which misogynist attitudes have traditionally flourished, and walking into a police station can be like entering the lion’s den.

Multiple surveys reveal that police to this day remain highly suspicious of rape claimants, erroneously believing that large numbers – up to 80 percent – are lying. As an extreme example of police hostility, a former detective in Philadelphia’s rape unit reportedly called it the “lying bitches unit.” Accordingly, he was in the habit of miscoding rape reports as noncriminal offenses, thereby preventing them from being counted, much less prosecuted. (Such data machinations have the added advantages of bolstering police crime-solving rates while artificially lowering a community’s overall crime rates.)

Police and prosecutorial recalcitrance remains a major barrier to successful prosecution. In one county in Pennsylvania, for instance, at least 85 people, include 44 teenagers, have reported rapes to police in the past three years, yet charges were filed in just two of those cases, resulting in only one conviction. In a new report, the U.S. Police Executive Research Forum warns that high rates of downgrading or “unfounding” of rape allegations is a red flag; journalists have exposed such systematic practices in several large U.S. cities, including St. Louis, New Orleans, Cleveland, Baltimore, and New York City.

Deer on wall of shed where Amber Wyatt was raped (police evidence photo)
I was involved in one such case recently, in which a rape allegation mysteriously vanished. The 16-year-old victim, "Jessica," had promptly reported a credible sexual assault by an older classmate. Despite collecting physical evidence – both from Jessica's body and from a used condom left at the scene – police did not even bother to question the perpetrator, dismissing the rape as a “he-said, she-said” situation. It wasn’t until the assailant went on to commit at least three further sexual assaults that he was finally brought to justice. Naturally, that happened in a different jurisdiction.

Reporter Elizabeth Bruenig spent three years investigating the appalling case of another 16-year-old girl, a cheerleader from her hometown who was viciously raped while intoxicated by two athletes at a high school party. Like 16-year-old Jessica, Amber Wyatt had also promptly reported the assault to police. Physical evidence, including vaginal and anal tearing and one of the boys' semen inside her, corroborated her account. Yet no one was ever prosecuted. Her hometown turned against her, and she became a pariah. 

Outside of the U.S., meanwhile, police in some locales put the onus on victims to prove that their histories are unblemished before a case may proceed. In London, police are demanding unfettered access to vast quantities of highly personal records such as health data, school records and social media accounts, data that are not routinely collected from suspects. 

This intense scrutiny hints at the greater peril a woman faces at the next, more adversarial stage. Even when police investigate diligently and prosecutors determine there is enough credible evidence to file charges, the courtroom remains inescapably dangerous for the rape victim, a site of potential revictimization and compounding of the initial trauma. 

The "real" rapist of the public imagination
In criminal trials, a claim of rape is measured against the popular stereotype of a “real rape.” Real rapists are strangers to their victims. They wield knives or guns. They use physical force, and inflict physical injury. In reality, the proportion of such rapes is small. An estimated 90 percent of assailants know their victims. Typically, there is no weapon (other than alcohol), and the victim does not suffer visible injuries. The rape may be an impulsive crime of opportunity. Or, a victim may be targeted because she is easy prey due to such vulnerabilities as intoxication, social or physical isolation, naivety, or a desire to fit in with the popular crowd.

Acquaintance rape is essentially a confidence trick. The rapist exploits the victim’s psyche to gain her trust. The victim is taken by surprise. Girls are trained from a young age to be polite and compliant. So when caught off guard, fighting back aggressively against someone they know (and trusted up until that very moment) does not come naturally. But any dearth of physical resistance will be deployed against them later, in court. 

In other words, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the victim in the prototypical acquaintance rape has just about always done things “wrong.” Maybe she drank too much. Maybe she flirted. Most likely, she made a poor choice – such as trusting the wrong guy or getting in the wrong car – that put her in a vulnerable position. Perhaps she did not physically resist to the degree that many men – with their different gender socialization – believe that a "real" victim would. Maybe her character is flawed, as evidenced by her sexual history or her mental health. Invariably, case-specific factors can be found to cast aspersions on her reputation or decision-making, thereby diminishing her credibility and recasting the incident so that the suspect becomes the victim.

The requirement of a perfect victim is a very high bar. Unless there are multiple victims (and sometimes not even then), it is very difficult for the prosecution to prevail. Often, in the cases I observe, the accused is acquitted, perhaps using the defense of an honest (mis)belief that he had consent.

He walks out of the courtroom smiling, his invincibility shield intact. For her, the nightmares continue.

Shame
It is not just the rest of the world who judges the victim and finds her lacking. The victim is her own worst critic, nagged by a profound sense of shame and self-blame. Why did she trust him? Why did she get drunk? Why didn’t she fight harder? Why? Why? Why?

In a candid account of her own sexual assault victimization and failure to report, Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan writes about the intense self-loathing an attempted “date rape” unleashed in her:

“In my mind, it was not an example of male aggression used against a girl to extract sex from her. In my mind, it was an example of how undesirable I was. It was proof that I was not the kind of girl you took to parties, or the kind of girl you wanted to get to know. I was the kind of girl you took to a deserted parking lot and tried to make give you sex. Telling someone would not be revealing what he had done; it would be revealing how deserving I was of that kind of treatment.” 


Although under normal circumstances it is the powerful who get to shape the dominant narrative and dictate who is to be believed, the Kavanaugh debacle is encouraging silenced voices to speak up – and to be believed by many. Flanagan believes Dr. Blasey. And so do most other women, if we are being honest. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been assaulted or harassed or denigrated. We’ve been made to feel small. We’ve blamed ourselves for male transgressions. We’ve witnessed these same things happening to other girls and women.

This is why Dr. Blasey’s story resonates among women, and presents such a potent threat for Kavanaugh and his base of support.

False allegations
Among his defenders, in contrast, Kavanaugh’s unwavering denial of wrongdoing is posited as evidence of innocence. But denial is only natural for an accused. If it proved innocence, the prisons would be empty. Denial proves lack of acceptance of responsibility, and nothing more.

In truth, contrary to the beliefs of many police officers and others in the general public, it is quite rare for women to fabricate allegations of sexual assault. Research has consistently found that only a tiny fraction of rape reports – perhaps 5 or 6 percent – are false, and these generally follow predictable and detectable patterns.

Protesters at Kavanaugh's alma mater, Yale University
The allegations against Kavanaugh do not fit the profiles of false reports. Dr. Blasey and Ms. Ramirez did not engage in “regret sex” with Kavanaugh. They have no personal vendettas. They are not mentally unstable or criminal fraudsters. Both are respected, middle-aged, professional women who have come forward quite reluctantly, imperiling their valued privacy and the safety of their families. If they were lying, we would expect exaggerated claims made with greater certitude. We wouldn’t expect Dr. Blasey to take and pass a..
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