Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Punishment does not equal prevention

How wonderful that Mr. Gary Greenburg, a wealthy New York businessman, is concerned about the young victims of child sexual abuse and wants to help. He has offered $100, 000 dollars toward that end.

That is a lot of money.

The first thing that comes to mind when reading this is an appeal made many months ago by a coalition that includes sexual assault prevention and victims’ groups. The National Coalition to Prevent Child Abuse and Exploitation called for the creation of a stable funding stream dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse and exploitation. The group asked for that funding to equal at least one percent of the millions currently spent on “after-the-fact” responses like sex registries and civil commitment. As far as I know, the group is still waiting for a response. Mr. Greenburg’s pledge would surely be a healthy beginning toward that.

A second real possibility is using the money to help establish a Circles of Support and Accountability program in New York. First begun in Canada in 1994 in the Mennonite community, these programs have gained great credibility in England and in parts of the United States. The most recent success story comes from Vermont, where preliminary results of a Circles program begun there in 2005 is seeing a reduction of 86% in the recidivism of convicted sex offenders.  

While the Circles programs are invaluable in aiding the rehabilitation and reentry of former offenders, which also serves public safety, to actually make inroads against child sexual abuse requires addressing the problem where it is occurring.

The research is very clear on this subject. First time offenders, not those already registered for a previous offense, commit the vast majority of all sexual crime. This is even truer for the sexual abuse of children and minors. Except for a tiny percentage – and an even more minute percentage are repeat offenders -- they are victimized by those in their lives, i.e., their family members, their peers, and their authority figures. Any attempts to effect a change in this scenario with a focus on those who have already committed offenses will fail; indeed, it is failing every day.

Dedicated and comprehensive programs of education and prevention are a large part of the answer. A bill called Erin’s Law is one such program that holds promise. Begun by a young woman, Erin Merryn, who, like Mr. Greenburg, was sexually abused as a child, the bill requires an age appropriate curriculum in public schools for both faculty and students. Its focus is recognizing child sexual abuse and the appropriate measures to be taken. It has already been adopted in 26 states. 

Other valuable programs, such as Stop It Now and SAEN – Sexual Abuse Ends Now -- focus on utilizing what research and science tell us about sexual offending to confront the problem of child sexual abuse.

Mr. Greenburg’s many dollars would almost certainly be welcomed by any of these programs and would certainly meet his goal of helping child sexual assault victims and preventing new ones.

What will not help is his intended campaign against legislators in New York who are questioning the efficacy of harsher and stricter laws and punishments against those who commit sexual offenses. Recent years have seen ever-increasing harshness in penalties and sentencing. Children are still being molested. While sentences appropriate to the crime committed are necessary, we should not fool ourselves. These do very little to deter the continuing sexual abuse of children committed overwhelmingly by those never arrested or charged with a sex crime.

Punishment is not prevention, and overly harsh punishment is not focused on victims or prevention but rather on vengeance.

Like Mr. Greenburg, all decent people want an end to the sexual abuse of children. To attain that goal, we must focus on the children and the situations in which they are being abused.




  1. I am a fan of your blog, Ms Stowe, however I am somewhat puzzled by the statistic of an 86% reduction in recidivism reported by the Vermont Circles program. Given the very low rate of recidivism among offenders, I'm very interested in how this statistic was computed.

    1. Although the article does not link the study, I believe that this must be it.

      The paragraph in the article that gives this information says, "...results of a University of Vermont study show that just one in 30 sex offenders involved in Circles was re-convicted of a felony, compared with roughly one in five of those not involved — a reduction of 86%."

      Other studies have suggested that for high risk offenders, a re-offense rate of 20% for the first year is not uncommon. It goes down drastically after that, and for every year offense free, the risk keeps decreasing. 1 in 5 is 20%, and if it goes down to 1 in 30, I am guessing, without doing the math,that is probably around an 86% reduction. And notice that it says "re-convicted of a felony" -- it does not specify a sexual re-offense. This is precisely why I hate recidivism arguments. No two people mean the same thing when they say recidivism, and it is virtually impossible to pin something like that down. All we know is that very few registrants living in the community will commit another sexual offense and that the risk continues dropping every year offense free until it reaches a point where it is the same as someone who was never convicted of a sexual offense.

  2. There are alot of people that what you wrote about hope that the day will come before we pass . Every year offence free untill it reaches a point as some one who was never convicted . If not so beit . The PFML porgram is what hurts the children and families the most . They are the victims of PFML .


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