Making Sex Offenders Pay — and Pay and Pay and Pay: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Making Sex Offenders Pay — and Pay and Pay and Pay: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Stephen J. Dubner
06/10/2015 | 11:00 pm
Produced by: Suzie Lechtenberg

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Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Making Sex Offenders Pay — and Pay and Pay and Pay.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above, you can also read the transcript which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

The gist of this episode: Sure, sex crimes are horrific, and the perpetrators deserve to be punished harshly, but society keeps exacting costs — out-of-pocket and otherwise — long after the prison sentence has been served.

This episode was inspired (as many of our best episodes are) by an e-mail from a podcast listener, his name is Jake Swartz:

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Hey Guys,

So I just finished my M.A. in forensic psychology at John Jay and started an internship in a new city … I spend most of my days hanging out with lovely people like rapists and pedophiles. At my internship, I primarily do therapy (both group and individual) with convicted sex offenders and it made me realize being a sex offender is a terrible idea (apart from the obvious reasons). It’s economically disastrous! I think it would be interesting to cover the economics of being a sex offender.

I assumed that by “economically disastrous,” Jake was mostly talking about sex-offender registries, which constrain a sex offender’s options after getting out of prison (including where he/she can live, work, etc.). But when we followed up with Jake, we learned he was referring to a whole other set of costs paid by convicted sex offenders. And we thought that as disturbing as this topic may be to some people, it might indeed be interesting to explore the economics of being a sex offender — and that it might tell us something more generally about how American society thinks about crime and punishment.

In the episode, a number of experts walk us through the itemized costs that a sex offender pays — and whether some of these items (polygraph tests or a personal “tracker,” for instance) are worthwhile. We focus on one state, Colorado (where Swartz works), since policies differ by state. Among the contributors:

+ Rick May, a psychologist and the director of Treatment and Evaluation Services in Aurora, Colo. (the agency where Jake Swartz is an intern).

+ Laurie Rose Kepros, director of sexual litigation for the Colorado Office of the State Public Defender.

+ Leora Joseph, chief deputy district attorney in Colorado’s 18th Judicial District; Joseph runs the special victims and domestic-violence units.

+ Elizabeth Letourneau, associate professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse; and president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.

We also take a look at some empirical research on the topic, including a paper by Amanda Agan, an economics post-doc at Princeton. Her paper is called “Sex Offender Registries: Fear without Function?” As you can glean from the title alone, Again found that registries don’t prove to be much of a deterrent against further sex crimes. Here is the abstract (the bolding is mine):

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I use three separate data sets and designs to determine whether sex offender registries are effective. First, I use state-level panel data to determine whether sex offender registries and public access to them decrease the rate of rape and other sexual abuse. Second, I use a data set that contains information on the subsequent arrests of sex offenders released from prison in 1994 in 15 states to determine whether registries reduce the recidivism rate of offenders required to register compared with the recidivism of those who are not. Finally, I combine data on locations of crimes in Washington, D.C., with data on locations of registered sex offenders to determine whether knowing the locations of sex offenders in a region helps predict the locations of sexual abuse. The results from all three data sets do not support the hypothesis that sex offender registries are effective tools for increasing public safety.  ( Note: even through using the incorrect data from the 1994 study, where she looked at arrest records and not conviction records. that are significantly lower than the arrest percentages she still came to this conclusion)

We also discuss a paper by the economists Leigh Linden and Jonah Rockoff called “Estimates of the Impact of Crime Risk on Property Values from Megan’s Laws,” which found that when a sex offender moves into a neighborhood, “the values of homes within 0.1 miles of an offender fall by roughly 4 percent.”

You’ll also hear from Rebecca Loya, a researcher at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management. Her paper is called “Rape as an Economic Crime: The Impact of Sexual Violence on Survivors’ Employment and Economic Wellbeing.” Loya cites an earlier paper on this topic — “Victim Costs and Consequences: A New Look,” by Ted R. Miller, Mark A. Cohen, and Brian Wiersema — and notes that out-of-pocket (and other) costs borne by convicted sex offenders do have something to say about our collective views on justice:

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LOYA: So if we believe that doing one’s time in prison is enough of a punishment, then we have to ask questions about whether people should continue to pay financially in other ways after they get out. And perhaps as a society we don’t believe that and we believe people should continue to pay and perhaps our law reflects that.

5 comments for “Making Sex Offenders Pay — and Pay and Pay and Pay: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

  1. Ron
    June 14, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Since this was about the economical impact, it was nicely done. I liked how it touched on other areas while staying on topic. I think they could have added or talked about the following more.

    1 – Registered citizens who have families to support. Yet they can’t because of residency restrictions or being unable to find a job because of being an the SO registry. In a day and age where many families have to have two incomes to make ends meet and kids to support. So If one is unable to find a job, then what? Out side assistance of some sort. This can add up fast and cost tax payers a huge amount.

    2 – What about those kids who are harassed because of a parent or grandparent who is a registered citizen? How many of them just drop out of school. How many are able to find good paying jobs, or depending on the area any job at all.

    3 – Vigilantes in the past have killed people on the registry. The woman in Main comes to mind. After he was murdered she had to take care of the kids, bills, etc all on here own. Also with vigilantes there is a strong possibility that others will be harmed or killed in the process of this twisted vigilante justice against registered citizens. This also makes the financial cost go up.

    So there are a few more things that can be added as well just from a monetary point of view.

    People need to realize it is not just the person who committed the crime that is on the registry but their whole family as well.

  2. Scott
    June 16, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    We do pay and pay and pay. In the county I live in, The county likes to put sex offenders in for the rest of their lives 25 to 50 years for their first time offense. I understand you have to be tough on crime, but let’s not let power over ride their ego and their position. Sentences for this long of a duration is for murder charges I thought?? Did we kill someone or is murder now a more respectable crime??

  3. Susan Vitolins
    June 25, 2015 at 7:50 am

    In addition to the punishment of the registry, no one wants to give a convicted sex offender a chance for employment. They will never pass a background check, which nearly every employer now requires, due to the felony conviction. Why is a first offense a felony? Especially after successful completion of either the prescribed punishment.

  4. Ron
    July 14, 2015 at 7:24 am

    The stigma of being a sex offender is comparable to being a modern day leper. Sure there are a small percentage who pose a real danger to society and must be dealt with accordingly. But the huge majority of us are clumped in with serious pedophiles. A tier system is needed, especially for those whose crime happened many years ago. Mine was over 25 years ago regarding a stepdaughter. The real point is that probably 95% of sex crimes go unreported. Speaking from a personal point of view those of us who made a horrible mistake and have paid their debt to society, we, convicted sex offenders, are the last people on God’s green earth to put ourselves in a position to re-commit. Life and freedom is precious. No one knows it better than those of us whose done time as a convicted sex offender.

    • Will Bassler
      July 14, 2015 at 8:40 am

      I have to agree with you about being the last person on God’s green earth to put ourselves in a position to recommit. The thing is that I dislike the word, pedophiles to describe the worst . there are many that have been stuck with the label pedophile who will never reoffend either. In the two states that have done studies of people on the registry, not people coming out of prison or out of treatment programs, but actually on the registry. They have found that when comparing those who reoffend to those who do not reoffend that the overall reoffend rate is far less than 1% it seems strange that there has not been a national study of people on the whole registry to see what their re-offense rate , could it be that the people with financial interests such as psychiatrists and psychologists who normally do those studies don’t want to do one because they know in advance that the re-offense rate is going to be in hundreds if not thousands of one percent.

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