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Update: July 17, 2007

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Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics


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(There is something really great at the end of this post, *read it*...) I'll tell you something, my hands hurt. I have very little to write for this weblog today, but lucky for me, I don't have to. I've already written close to 2,200 words today in the comments section of a single post on bluenc.com, regarding proposed sex-offender legislation. From BlueNC:
The NC General Assembly is considering large mandatory minimum sentences for certain sex offenders [...] Jessica's law would require 25-life for sex offenses involving a child victim. My wife and I disagree about criminal law a lot, but she's usually the harder nose. But a few years ago, after we read about a Texas man who had a big red sign on the front of his house announcing that a sex offender lived inside, we realized that our positions are reversed on this topic. Something about the sign didn't sit right with her, while I kind of thought it should be bigger and brighter.

Things like this are magnets for three things: controversial debates, firestorms, and statistics. There are quite a few very bright and friendly people over at BlueNC, and I've had nothing short of a blast engaging them in a bit of Socratic debate. I first point you over to the page which holds the original article, or the same page jumping directly to the comments. The first comment is something I think most people can agree on.
I would be for almost any measure to keep this type of srime rate down, but I do not know of a shred of evidence suggesting that these new laws work. Think about a sex offender who has to tell his neighbors of his past; the neighbors may be aware and keep an eye on their kids, but the offender could walk to the next neighborhood and no one their would be the wiser.

Others shared a feeling that is gaining ground. The state of Oklahoma recently joined South Carolina and three other states in making child molestation a capital offense.
Oklahoma on Friday became the fifth state to allow the death penalty for certain sex crimes, although legal scholars questioned the constitutionality of the new state law. Under the measure signed by Gov. Brad Henry, anyone convicted twice for rape, sodomy or lewd molestation involving children under 14 can face the death penalty.

And a very intriguing response to the law...
David Brook, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., said the measure might actually put a child rape victim's life at risk. "The last message you want to give an offender who has the life of a child in his hands is you might as well kill the child because he's already got the death penalty," said Brook, who runs the Virginia Capital Case Clearing House, which assists lawyers in death penalty cases. "This is a very stupid message."

But that is a whole other debate, and I've had my fill of debates for today. Rather than repeating every single comment here when you can just hit up the very fine BlueNC.com, with permission, I'll reprint here my posts, and the primary back-and-forth with Lance, whom I believe to be the main man over at BlueNC (please correct me if I'm wrong about this.)

#19844 On 28 June, 2006 2:39pm Paul Tenny (not verified) said,

I would start, Lance, by pointing out that your blanket statement of "Given that sex offenders are more likely than other criminal groups to repeat their crimes" is an error at best, and a lie at worst.

Among the ones that I found, economic and socially driven crimes such as burglary, drugs, and property offenses are all more likely to re-offend than violent criminals and sex offenders. Other findings conclude that:

* For males, the last tested education grade level is the third most influential factor on re-offending and reimprisonment.
* For both males and females, the two most influential factors on re-offending and reimprisonment are prior recidivism and age at release, in that order.

http://www.dc.state.fl.us/pub/recidivism/2003/index.html

In a recent six-year span, only *1* sex offender in the entire state of Hawaii re-offended. Lest we not forget, sex crimes are highly emotional subjects, and therefore are most susceptible to spin.

Studies have also shown that most sex offenders are relatives of, or people with privileged access (read: friend of the family, not day-care center employee) to the child, and that no amount of distance laws are going to change that.

It's also important to note that sex offender registries tend to be all-encompassing nets that don't really care much about who they catch. I've heard stories of a father who had to register as a sex offender because of a simple despite over spanking his own child.

You have to be careful with what you do with a person once they have served their prison sentence. There is a line between carefully watching a high-risk potential offender, and continual life-long punishment.

I don't know why, but people seem so ready to throw a sex offender into prison for life, brand them with ankle bracelets, and announce their presence on community billboards, yet have absolutely no problem with convicted murderers walking around as free as if they had only jaywalked.

I know it's very important to some people, yet I get that sinking feeling like the entire issue has turned into a flag burning/gay-marriage ideological war, than a true spirited engagement over serious and prevalent social problems.

To Meredith: I agree, 19 and 17 don't warrant incarceration, and in fact it doesn't here. The age of consent in North Carolina is 16 for girls. In the Union, the average age of consent for sex is 17, with 28 states setting the limit at 16 (making 15 and below illegal), including: The District of Columbia (16) and the United States Uniformed Code of Military Justice (16).

And if you think that's bad, or awkward, consider: the age of consent in the United Kingdom is also 16. It's 15 in France, 14 in China and Canada, a staggering 12 in Chile and Mexico, and naturally there is no age of consent in Iran, because it's illegal to have any sex outside of marriage there.

My friends, when people go after kids, they aren't going after fifteen or sixteen year olds, they are going after actual kids. Not because they are kids, but because these people have real and lasting problems that aren't going to be solved by jail time, or high tech monitoring equipment.

Child abuse is a social and health issue, it's not a moral or legal issue, and it is certainly not a problem I see being properly addressed anytime in the near future so long as people continue treating it so.

There's my buck and a dime, beat that with a stick.

I have to admit right here that I stole "beat that with a stick" from a great episode of West Wing when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was speaking about gays in the military, as well as blacks in the military. I honestly think I could go the rest of my life, doing nothing but copying and pasting dialog from that show when it comes to things like this. Ah well, on with the fire..
#19858 On 28 June, 2006 5:50pm Lance said,
"I would start, Lance, by pointing out that your blanket statement of "Given that sex offenders are more likely than other criminal groups to repeat their crimes" is an error at best, and a lie at worst."
No, I definitely heard them say that on Law & Order. But I am properly chastened for being sloppy with my terms. What I meant to talk about (and I really did use the wrong term) was pedophiles. Some quick Googling turns up sites that say things like: "More than 1/2 of all convicted sex offenders are sent back to prison within a year. Within 2 years, 77.9% are back.--California Department of Corrections"; and "Recidivism rates range from 18-45%. The more violent the crime the more likelihood of repeating. --Studies by the state of Washington." Those come from this page. But as I was getting at with my Law & Order comment above, I "know" what I know in this area largely from second- and third-hand sources. I'm open to education on this topic.

Also, Hawaii? Dude, why Hawaii?
"I don't know why, but people seem so ready to throw a sex offender into prison for life, brand them with ankle bracelets, and announce their presence on community billboards, yet have absolutely no problem with convicted murderers walking around as free as if they had only jaywalked."
I have urges that, unmoderated, could lead me to kill someone. Why, just a little while ago, some lady in the grocery store kept materializing in front of me and then parking her cart in the space I was about to move through. If she'd wanted to drive me into a murderous state of mind, she would not have had to change a thing about her behavior. And there are circumstances in which moderation fails.

Now there are murderers who kill because they are broken, and not because some normal emotion got beyond their control. But sexual predators who target kids? Where does that even come from? How should we understand these people? How can we make a place for them in society? They are, to my mind, irretrievably broken and an ongoing danger and appropriate subjects for civil commitment. I'm a law student, and before that I majored in Math and Philosophy, so take my opinion only for what it's worth. But that is my opinion until someone convinces me otherwise.

Finally:
"Child abuse is a social and health issue, it's not a moral or legal issue...."
When we are making policy decisions about what level of danger to society (and especially society's weakest members) a person has to pose before we put them away, it's a moral issue. When we're talking about how existing laws should be applied and about what the law ought to be, it's a legal issue. I don't have any problem with the statement that "[c]hild abuse is a social and health issue," but I'd love to hear someone make the case that there is no moral or legal component to it.

My armor damaged, my sword on the ground, I go for the nuts...I channel Jed Bartlet...
#19875 On 28 June, 2006 10:12pm Paul Tenny (not verified) said,

When it stops being about punishment for a crime, and becomes an issue of revenge and righteousness, the words legal and moral become nothing but excuses for blood lust, and cease being foundations of reason.

I understand peoples emotional response. I have two little nephews, and when I think about them, and these crimes, all I really want to do is kill. And then (figuratively speaking, I am not religious) I thank God that we have a system in place where the impartial decide the fate of the accused, and not the victims families.

A very important line must be drawn here. You punish them for a set amount of time which you believe is directly proportional to the seriousness of the crime they have been found guilty of. Once the sentence has been served, they must be given the opportunity to move on. It is a fundamental part of civilized society that punishment ends when the sentence ends.

*You cannot have society without that concept*

Now when you are talking about second-time offenders, that's an entirely different debate than just talking about sex offenders. Mandatory life sentences for repeat offenders has been tried for other crimes and generally hasn't work all that well, and it's a much larger issue than any specific crime alone. It is difficult enough to debate the first issue, and virtually impossible to debate them both at the same time.

This country is running dangerously low on people capable of applying an even hand, and this issue above most others requires such moderation and care, lest we devolve into lynchings and summary executions bases solely on how pissed off you are at any given moment.

Wow, aren't I smug...but don't worry, Lance sets me straight.
#19879 On 28 June, 2006 11:26pm Lance said,

Although revenge is a time-honored motivation for punishment, I'm talking about crime prevention.

Suppose a guy has a funky chemical composition so that he might one day explode with the force of a few sticks of dynamite. Say his chances of going off over the next 10 years is about 50/50. Would you be comfortable letting him go on about a normal life? Or do you need something for this guy that isn't jail but isn't quite the American dream, either?

One other thing:
A very important line must be drawn here. You punish them for a set amount of time which you believe is directly proportional to the seriousness of the crime they have been found guilty of. Once the sentence has been served, they must be given the opportunity to move on. It is a fundamental part of civilized society that punishment ends when the sentence ends.

*You cannot have society without that concept*
There are a number of accepted reasons to jail someone: deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation, protection of society.... These all play into sentencing, so it's not at all easy to say what amount of time is "directly proportional to the seriousness of the crime." And if you have a good reason to think that a class of criminals is particularly likely to repeat their crimes, then the motives of rehabilitation and protection of society may continue beyond the time when society's retributive goals are served (and for such criminals, there may be no way to serve the goal of deterrence).

So when you say "You cannot have society without that concept," you're compressing these questions into one and saying everything ("a person should not be imprisoned too long") and nothing (there's still no answer there as to how long "too long" is).

Ok, one more thing: I'm enjoying this discussion, and I hope you are too. It's nice to get to engage someone on a difficult topic in the kind of reasoned discourse I've come to expect as a regular Bitch what? reader.

Oh my God...he linked me..my technorati stock just shot up like 164232 billion points. There was a great episode of West Wing (SHUT UP ABOUT WEST WING) where the senior staff are told to start submitting two-page summaries to the Chief of Staff before they get yap time with the President, and Sam, being a writer, says something like "There is no way I can reach my full potential in a two-page summary." I hear you buddy, I hear you...
#19946 On 29 June, 2006 11:34am Paul Tenny (not verified) said,

Nothing pleases me more than being able to do this. I always learn something about the subject of discussion, and a little about life and people as well.

You have made some very good points, and usually those are the ones I don't address, so here are the two that I will address.

When I said "You cannot have society without that concept", what I meant was "jail is fine, punishment is fine, but once the punishment mandated by a jury is complete, you must be extremely careful that everything you do after that point does not cross the line back into extra-judicial punishment." I believe in that very strongly.

And as for the 50/50 question, that's incredibly difficult to answer. I for one wouldn't want to try without having a very firm understanding of the situation, and I don't say that because I want to be dodgey, but because it is a *very* good question, and necessitates a very complex answer.

If there was prior evidence, such as a psychological evaluation indicating that the threat to society is greater than we can accept, and that his mental health will not improve on its own, I would recommend involuntary confinement in a mental health facility. (People in New York are right now trying to do this with sex-offenders the instant they have finished their prison sentences, not because they are mentally ill but simply as a measure to keep them off the street *indefinitely*.) But I would be very cautious at any action that was not immediately justified by real evidence, simply because of human nature. Any person is capable of becoming a murderer or a law breaker in a heart beat. Do we monitor every human on the planet, and detain them when they come within five feet of another person, while they are holding a gun or sharp object?

You can ask thousands of those questions, come up with thousands of answers, and thousands of new laws that on paper appear to protect the public. Only they don't, because they never really address the core problem, a persons mental state. Did they steal the car because they *really* needed money, to like, buy food? Or did they steal it because they have a mental predilection towards theft? Do we treat them differently, or the same regardless?

For the record, so this is utterly clear, I have no problem with ankle bracelets on high-risk sex-offenders during their probation. I have no real objection to the existence of registries either. My objections come when people are more concerned with creating new things like ankle bracelets and registries without paying equal attention to being fair about them. (I concede this is a problem with law makers and politicians in general.) Registries bare a striking resemblance to the federal no-fly list. You can't get off it, and you have no control over how you get on it in the first place (remember the father who got on one just by disciplining his child?)

Ultimately, my motivation comes from "fairness to others, for fairness to myself". I support same-sex marriage because for every bit that I want gays to be treated equally to me, I want myself to be treated equally to them. Sanctioning unfair treatment to one person for one reason just opens to door for myself to be treated unfairly as well.

P.S. It's been great fun debating with you Lance. Ever thought about creating a Google Group for extended discussion? Also, may I have your permission to reprint yours and my own comments from here on my weblog? We both make great points and it is a great discussion, and just posting the back-and-forth kind of tells the tale all by itself, and makes for a great post.

Can you feel the love? Can you? Feel it? No really, can you feel it? From the depths came that which cannot be denied nor seen approaching...another person joins the fray! (Oh God, this is the longest thing ever posted on this site. Will blogger ever forgive me? Will they care? Why don't they call me anymore? Where is my tv...?)
#19949 On 29 June, 2006 11:49am Robert Peterson said,

Paul,
You mention several things that I would like to address.
"My objections come when people are more concerned with creating new things like ankle bracelets and registries without paying equal attention to being fair about them. (I concede this is a problem with law makers and politicians in general.) Registries bare a striking resemblance to the federal no-fly list. You can't get off it, and you have no control over how you get on it in the first place (remember the father who got on one just by disciplining his child?)"
This is a problem, but it shouldn't be insurmountable. In fact, it shouldn't be a big deal at all. The fact that it is a problem doesn't mean you do away with the system. For the death penalty, we have a problem, the result is death, so yeah, you might want to AT LEAST freeze the outcome until you figure out the problems.
"You can ask thousands of those questions, come up with thousands of answers, and thousands of new laws that on paper appear to protect the public. Only they don't, because they never really address the core problem, a persons mental state. Did they steal the car because they *really* needed money, to like, buy food? Or did they steal it because they have a mental predilection towards theft? Do we treat them differently, or the same regardless?"
I'm a big proponent of the homeless project that actually rents houses and hires a full-time social worker to make sure those people are on the right meds (many hardcore homeless have severe mental health issues). So, I agree that you can delve into why people do things and try to fix the underlying issue. But, not with child molesters. I just don't see any fix to child molestation. It isn't stealing a car for kicks, robbing a store for food, or even mugging someone for cash to buy drugs - it is physically abusing and mentally torturing a baby. There is no fix for that in my mind.

Once an offender, always a threat.

Wow, he dropped the hammer. It's time to break out the heavy weaponry. Tanks, carpet-bombing, tactical nuclear warheads, ... and a healthy bit of condescension. I know, I am teh suck, especially since I used an inline quote...DAMN ME!
#19971 On 29 June, 2006 4:41pm Paul Tenny (not verified) said,

The only issue I have with what you've said is this. (hope this quotes right)
"But, not with child molesters. I just don't see any fix to child molestation. It isn't stealing a car for kicks, robbing a store for food, or even mugging someone for cash to buy drugs - it is physically abusing and mentally torturing a baby. There is no fix for that in my mind."
The problem is, nobody really sees a fix for schizophrenia either, but we still think about it. We still try to help them. Consider that if these people saw what they were doing as torture and painful abuse, one can only assume they wouldn't be doing it in the first place. I am not making excuses by any means, though.

It's easy to look at the real bad ones, and say "hey, there's a really sick bastard who is the very definition of evil", without taking a moment to consider that maybe they are a few beers short of a six pack. There are generally very few people in the world that do something they know is wrong unless they either don't consider it wrong, or can't mentally do anything about it (obsessive compulsive is a great example of otherwise normal people that just *can't stop* doing something.)

I obviously feel very bad for the victims of these crimes, but I try not to let that get in the way of my natural human compassion for the person who is in such a dark place, that the human mind and spirit which is capable of so many beautiful things could do such horrible acts. I feel sympathy for them that they got so messed up that their lives are just ruined for all time, and I hope other people would be capable of acknowledging that not everything going on in a persons brain is a simple matter of choice.

If a schizophrenic committed a violent act, say brutal assault or murder, most people wouldn't demonize them for it, we'd look at them and think how sad it is for a human life to be twisted and lost like this. And how sad is it that as advanced as we are as a species, we couldn't do a damn thing about it. Replace the schizophrenic with a child molester, and it's a whole different ballgame.

And I don't think that's fair -- and maybe I'm wrong, maybe wrapping our brains around this is what this country should be doing instead of fighting wars and screwing up medicare.

Incase you haven't noticed, I'm a politician, lawyer, medical doctor, writer, and part-time international spy (I had nothing to do with AT&T, that was sooo not my fault...)
#19950 On 29 June, 2006 11:50am Lance said,

I agree that fairness should be the touchstone for new laws, and I'm all for case-by-case analysis. A person shouldn't be treated to jail (or civil confinement) indefinitely just because they fall into a broad category. I just think there ought to be a mechanism to protect kids from people who we have a good specific reason to think will attack again.

Feel free to reprint! Just provide a link back. I like it when these discussions take place here, in part because I visit this site anyway, so it's like one stop shopping. But it's also nice when someone who came for some other reason stumbles into a conversation on something that matters to them.

Oh man did you see that? Lance used one of my favorite words, touchstone! It's also a production company owned by Disney, and a character in a Shakespear play called As You Like It. It also has something to do with money, but lacking money, I can't say for sure what...

Well the rest is mostly fluff, and you can as I said read all about it over at BlueNC. And if you haven't killed yourself trying to find the end of this thread, I leave you with the following image and thoughts.



In less than 48 hours, this object will be hurtling out of the Earths atmosphere at over 17,000 miles per hour, carrying a crew of seven incredibly brave people from the cradle to the stars. Pilot Mark E. Kelly, Commander Steven W. Lindsey, and Mission Specialists Piers J. Sellers, Michael E. Fossum, Lisa Nowak and Stephanie Wilson had a choice to make: they could stay here where it is safe, or risk their lives to expand our knowledge and understanding of life and the universe. They know it's dangerous, perhaps too dangerous. But they are going anyway, because they want to, because they know we must. The human race has never backed down from anything, and this can be no exception.



They chose to risk it all so that the human race could resume it's rightful place amongst the stars. They are my heroes, and I wish them well on their historic journey.
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Jun 29, 2006, 8:04:00 PM
I'm one of three main men--Anglico and TarGator and I are the officers of BlueNC LLP, but there are three or four other posters who contribute just as much to the heart and mind of the site. BlueNC has a posse. :)


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