Opinion: More Press Sensationalism, Popular Hysteria and Counterproductive Policy in the Case of Sex Offender Timothy Szad | Off Message

Opinion: More Press Sensationalism, Popular Hysteria and Counterproductive Policy in the Case of Sex Offender Timothy Szad

Ed. note: Poli Psy columnist Judith Levine wrote this post.

“Vermont on edge as officials warn boys aged 12-13 to be on alert as pedophile rapist is getting out of jail on Friday.” That’s the headline in ... the UK’s Daily Mail 

The release of Timothy Szad — convicted in 2000 of snatching, handcuffing and sexually assaulting a 13-year-old boy — is apparently world news. 

It’s also the usual story of press sensationalism, popular hysteria and counterproductive policy.

On July 15, the police announced that Szad would be released on July 26 from the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., after serving his maximum sentence. The notification said Szad completed sex-offender treatment in prison but warned that he is at high risk for committing another crime.

This risk assessment is based on a formula assigning points based on the offender’s age, social and criminal history, the victim’s sex and other factors.

On July 16, WCAX reported that Springfield, where Szad was to live with his parents, was “on alert.”

July 17 the Eagle Times of Claremont, N.H., posted Szad’s physical characteristics. Cafemom.com, a national forum, warned mothers of Szad’s release.

Every news item basically said: Lock up your blond, blue-eyed 12- and 13-year-old boys. They all drew similar comments: “sickening,” “scary,” “They should all be castrated.”

After Fox44 television posted Szad’s sex-offender registry listing on Facebook, someone put up a photo of a truck emblazoned with a decal reading “Save a Deer. Hunt a Pedophile.”

By July 26, Szad’s parents had allegedly received threats and reneged on housing him. Gov. Shumlin announced that the Department of Corrections would send Szad to California. That state, similarly warned, did not welcome Szad. He went briefly to Oregon.

On July 27, Huffington Post climbed on. Its Newsy TV reported Szad would not be under “any supervision.”

This is untrue. Under federal and state law, Szad had to register within 24 hours as a sex offender. Registered offenders must comply with severe limits on where they may live, work or travel. If they don’t report every new address, car purchase or other change in their living situation, they risk re-imprisonment.

“The case has highlighted a dilemma,” wrote Dave Gram of the Associated Press. “Police and corrections officials say the public needs to be notified when someone with Szad’s risk profile is released, but notification can create a backlash that makes the offender’s successful return to the community less likely.”

Only the second part is true. The community does not need to be notified. There are no more child molesters now than there ever have been. Sex-offender treatment reduces recidivism among pedophiles, who have the lowest re-offense rates among violent criminals.

By contrast, registration and its attendant strictures do not enhance public safety or affect re-offense rates. Rather, these policies so isolate former offenders from the community that some data show they’re more likely to reoffend.

For this reason, the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence has opposed efforts to harden such strictures.

Community notification only fans fear and loathing — and sometimes vigilante violence.

For now, Szad is living in Hyde Park with members of a church that helps reintegrate former prisoners into society. Its pastor has vouched for Szad’s commitment to staying on the straight and narrow. Szad will voluntarily continue offender therapy and check in with police daily.

This hasn’t calmed renewed calls for civil commitment in Vermont — that is, letting the state indefinitely lock up sex offenders who’ve served their time if some psychologists say they might assault again. Vermont has chosen not to imprison people for crimes they might commit.

So far, anyhow. The governor has suggested he’d sign a civil commitment bill — to do anything possible “to make this state safer from pedophiles.”

It's hard to say whether such a bill will make it to his desk. That depends on whether civil libertarians can mount the same opposition they did eight years ago and whether the legislature can stand up to pressure to pass one. The chair of the House Judiciary Committee is against it. 

But as the coverage of Szad's release indicates, there's never any political cost to sticking one more to the perverts.

Image of window decal from CheapDecalShop.com.


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