It may run counter to conventional wisdom, but it is exceedingly rare for a person registered as a sex offender to be charged with a new sexual offense in Cumberland County.
Of the 75 charged sex crime cases in Cumberland County in 2016, only two were committed by a person listed on the sex offender registry, according to an analysis of court records conducted by The Sentinel.
Neither of those offenses involved a direct assault on a child.
Of the more than 300 charged sex crime cases in Cumberland County between 2013 and 2016, only six cases involved a person listed on the sex offender registry.
Those stats show that the more than 290 remaining cases — including some of the most heinous sexual assaults against children — were committed by people who were not registered.
“It’s really clear that all of the evidence and all of the data shows that most sex offenses are committed by first-time offenders,” said Emily Horowitz, professor of sociology and criminal justice at Saint Francis College. “For whatever reason, people who are on the registry have a very low recidivism rate, and if one is really concerned about decreasing sex offenses, they kind of have to look elsewhere instead of people who have already been convicted of sex offenses.”
The Sentinel reviewed more than 450 charged sex crime cases in Cumberland, Dauphin, Perry, Franklin and Adams counties in 2016 and found only 15 cases where the defendant was on the registry at the time of the offense.
More than 96 percent of all sex crime cases in those five counties involved defendants who were not on the sex offender registry.
“You can look at that and say ‘people on the registry aren’t committing sex crimes,’” Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed said.
Freed said the low number of defendants on the sex offender registry may also be an indicator the policies are working.
“Would they be more likely to do so if we didn’t have a registry?” he said. “I can’t answer that. ... Is it effective? That’s the question for all these punishments.”
Between 1990 and 2015, the rate of rape in Pennsylvania remained relatively flat from 25.8 rapes per 100,000 people to 24.4 rapes per 100,000 people, according to the FBI.
In that time, Pennsylvania passed its first Megan’s Law — requiring sexual offenders to register with Pennsylvania State Police — created an online public database of that registry and expanded the database to comply with new federal laws.
At no time in that more-than-20-year time frame did the rate of rape show a significant change coinciding with implementation of a new sex offender policy, according to an analysis conducted by The Sentinel.
Rapes reported by the FBI include adult victims, but what about changes in sexual assaults only against children?
The number and rate of substantiated claims of child sexual assault peaked in 1992, four years prior to the passage and implementation of the state’s original Megan’s Law, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.
Between 1992 and 1995, when Megan’s Law was signed into law but before it went into effect, the number of substantiated claims of child sexual assault fell from more than 4,500 to less than 3,100, according to DHS reports.
Substantiated reports dropped sharply in 1996, when Megan’s Law first went into effect, but rebounded a year later.
The rapid decline at the enactment of Megan’s Law followed by a quick rebound is similar to findings in a 2006 study of the effectiveness of Megan’s Law in New Jersey.
That study concluded Megan’s Law “showed no demonstrable effect in reducing sexual re-offenses” and “has no effect on reducing the number of victims involved in sexual offenses.”
The study conducted by the New Jersey Department of Corrections concluded, “given the lack of demonstrable effect of Megan’s Law on sexual offenses, the growing cost may not be justifiable.”
Pennsylvania’s decrease at the time of the enactment of Megan’s Law may also have less to do with the law and more to do with changing demographics.
Between 1990 and 1999, Pennsylvania’s population between the ages of 18 and 24 — a peak point for criminal involvement — dropped by nearly 200,000, according to U.S. Department of Justice.
A regression analysis comparing the number of substantiated claims of child sexual assaults with that population size showed nearly 80 percent of the change in substantiated sexual assaults was related to the change in population size between 1990 and 1999.
While this is a strong correlation, more research is needed to determine any causal effect.
“When we tell ourselves that these registries are going to be effective, or that they are going to protect children, or they are going to protect the community, I think we need to dig behind that and figure out what that means,” University of North Carolina School of Law professor Carissa Hessick said.
Hessick said a recent study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found only 5 percent of individuals released from prison after committing a sexual offense went on to commit a new sexual offense within five years.
The study adds to mounting evidence that sex offenders tend to have a low recidivism rate, Hessick said.
“The public discussion surrounding sex offenders doesn’t seem to match up very well with the social science evidence we have about sex offenders and recidivism,” Hessick said. “It’s not surprising the policies we’ve adopted aren’t achieving their goals since they don’t seem to have been based on complete or accurate information.”
Horowitz described current sex offender policy as “punishment on steroids,” saying the policies may actually be causing more harm than good.
“There is a treatment provider in Florida who argues the harsh punishments actually make it less likely for people,” she said. “The reality is that most kids are sexually abused by people they know ... and being aware of the extent of the punishment can decrease the reporting.
“…I think we are supposed to look at that which is painted by fear and hysteria and panic,” she said.
This week The Sentinel takes a closer look at criminal justice in 2016 by the numbers.
The major stories in criminal justice in 2016
The rise in overdose deaths
A closer look at Megan’s Law and the sex offender registry.