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:

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):

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:

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.

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