Vermont Newsguy

by Jon Margolis

Is Vermont's Sex Offender Registry Effective?

July 12, 2013
At last count, there were 1,155 Vermonters on the public section of the state's Sex Offender Registry and Notification (SORN) list.

That's the list open to the public. It allows anyone to go on line and learn whether anyone living nearby has been convicted of a sex crime, including (but not limited to) sexual crimes against children and young teenagers.

The web site provides the name, age, and description (including a picture) of each registered sex offender, whether he (it's usually a he; only 27 women are on the Registry) is considered "high risk" to re-offend, the date he was convicted, and the statute he violated. It does not give street addresses, only the town of residence. Those who want to know if the offender lives next door would have to consult their local phone book or other resource.

The Registry is required by law, both state and federal. Its goal is to minimize sexual assault against children by alerting both police and parents to the presence of potentially dangerous offenders.

Does it work"

At first glance, the evidence seems to suggest that it does. The number of reported sexual offense against minors is on the decline. In 2004, according to the Vermont Criminal Information Center (based on data from the National Archive of Criminal Justice) there were 204 forcible and 89 non-forcible sex offenses reported against victims under the age of 18. By 2010, the last year for which information is available, there were only 165 forcible and 39 non-forcible offenses reported.

But not necessarily because of the Sex Offender Registry.

Thanks to publicity surrounding such horrible crimes as the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett in Randolph June 2008 (and perhaps to the promotional zeal of some cable television personalities) public awareness and public outrage about sex crimes against children has been growing.

But the actual commission of these crimes has been shrinking.

"The rate of sexual assault, according to all federal crime data, has been declining for many years," said Andrew Harris, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, who has done extensive research into sex offender policy. "Whether it can be attributed to any particular policy " the registries, better investigation, longer sentences " we can't say."

But there does seem to be something approaching a consensus in the academic research over the question of whether the registries are effective. That consensus is that they are not.

One study reaching that conclusion was done in 2005 by the Legislative Council for the Vermont State Legislature. It found that "there is insufficient evidence to determine whether posting information about registered sex offenders on the internet is a valuable and effective public safety tool."

But, the report acknowledged, "The general assembly determined'that the majority of the public feels that the internet registry provides important information that can be used to protect families and expects such information to be a matter of public record."

That's not quite saying (because researchers working for the Legislature would not say) that politicians were pursuing a useless policy because of public pressure. But it's close.

Even Harris, who described himself as middle-of-the-road on the dispute, could only say that just because the research has "not been able to demonstrate a significant impact (of the registries) doesn't lead to conclusion that there is no impact."

But Vermont Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn and Francis (Paco) Aumand, the Director of the Division of Criminal Justice Services both argue that the Registry could protect some children in ways that no research could uncover.

By warning their children about the presence of "predatorial sex offenders," Flynn said, parents who have checked the registry could be protecting them from potential attacks.

Flynn and Aumond agree with Registry critic Allen Gilbert, the Executive Director the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont that the vast majority of sex offenses against children are committed by their relatives and acquaintances, not by what Gilbert called "a stranger in a trench coat leaping out from behind the bushes."

But Flynn noted that even the "small minority of sexual offenders (have the) potential to do great harm," and Aumand pointed out that some sexual predators become friendly with families " and thereby make themselves "acquaintances" " precisely to gain access to their vulnerable children. Forewarned about this new companion's past, he said, the parents can cut off contact with him before he can pounce.

Still, most experts in the field, including Flynn and Aumand, acknowledge that if the registries may do some good, they can also do some harm. Many of those experts conclude that the harm outweighs the good.

That's the conclusion of "Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the US," a 111-page report issued by Human Rights Watch in May.

"Of course anyone responsible for a sexual assault should be held accountable," wrote Nicole Pitman, the author of the report. "But punishment should fit both the offense and the offender, and placing children who commit sex offenses on a public registry " often for life " can cause more harm than good."

Pitman was referring in part to a problem " or at least what many consider a problem " that does not apply in Vermont: placing on the Registry a teenage boy who has consensual sex with an under-age (16 in Vermont) young woman.

However objectionable it might be, such conduct is the sign of a normal sex drive, not the abnormal passion for sex with minors that serves as one justification for sex offender registries. Vermont does not put those offenders on the Registry as long as the offender was under 18 and the victim older than 12.

But a common offense of the Vermont registrants is "lewd and lascivious conduct with (a) child." That could describe truly dangerous and abhorrent conduct. But in one case (not in Vermont) a college student, probably after drinking a few beers, urinated on the grass at the edge of his campus. Unfortunately, it was also near a house where two teen-aged girls lived. The parents pressed charges and the young man is on his state's registry.

There is no evidence that there is a similar case in Vermont. But no guarantee that there is not.

In a few cases, being listed on the Registry has proved fatal. In 2006, a self-appointed vigilante from Canada murdered two men who were on Maine's Registry (he had also checked out the Vermont list) before shooting and killing himself.

One of the murdered men had been convicted of having sex with his girl friend just a few days before she reached the age of consent.

The Vermont Registry posts a disclaimer on its web site: "Any person who uses information in this registry to injure, harass, or commit a criminal offense against any person included in the registry or any other person is subject to criminal prosecution."

"I'm not sure what good that does," said Allen Gilbert. "The law already says you're not allowed to hurt anybody."

Vermont's law differs from those of many states in other ways. It does not empower localities to limit where offenders can live. And most offenders are on the Registry for a period of time. If they do not re-offend " and most do not " they are removed from the list when the time expires.

Critics and advocates of Vermont's Registry disagree over whether its benefits outweigh its costs. Gilbert said he would prefer to replace the Registry with "a more reasonable approach" which would rely on "treatment programs that work," and a greater effort to "successfully reintegrate (offenders) back into society."

The Registry hinders that process, Gilbert said. It stigmatizes those on it, making it harder for them to find and keep a job, to be accepted by civic organizations or to be welcome by their neighbors.

But he also acknowledged that the question is complicated. And while law enforcement officials such as Flynn and Aumand think the Registry is worth its costs, they don't dispute that it has its cost, and that it can interfere with efforts to treat offenders to the point at which they no longer endanger anyone. Unlike their counterparts in some other states, Vermont's top law enforcement officials do not say they believe that people who sexually abuse children have an affliction that can never be cured.

"This is a legitimate argument that needs discussion," Flynn said, acknowledging that the Registry "limits civil liberties," and should be applied selectively, "with appropriate balance."

Killer Cats

April 26, 2013
    The next sound you hear will be from one of the world's more ferocious animals, an invasive species in these parts, a vicious killer responsible for the predation of billions of wild birds:


    Meow" As in, the meow that is so often the response to "here kitty, kitty""

    Yup, that meow. The call of the house cat, "felis catus" to the scientist, beloved companion to millions of Americans, including hundreds of thousands of Vermonters. The cats that crawl onto their owner's laps in the evening in front of the fire, purr when scratched behind the ears, and make children laugh by leaping about.

    And kill birds.

    How many birds" Billions, roughly 2.4 billion a year nationwide, says a new study by credentialed scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service writing in a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal.

No way, says a cat-lovers organization.

"This doesn't appear to be research for research's sake." said Becky Robinson, co-founder and head of Alley Cat Allies. Not only do the "extreme numbers seem quite exaggerated." she said, but the authors wanted to "further their agenda to kill more cats."

Whether or not the study -- "The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States" " is part of it, there is an agenda of sorts here, a low key but unmistakable campaign being undertaken by environmentalists in alliance with federal and state (including Vermont) agencies to spread awareness about bird predation by cats.

There are no TV ads, speeches, or mass meetings in this campaign. But government natural resource agencies have been encouraging the discussion. In February, for instance, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department issued a statement quoting fish and wildlife biologist John Buck saying that "cats pose a threat to Vermont's songbirds, such as robins, bluebirds and cardinals, (and) may even restrict the statewide recovery of some rare birds. The whip-poor-will, which is a state threatened species, can easily fall prey to roaming cats during their nesting season."

    Buck didn't suggest killing more cats, but Becky Robinson was not entirely wrong. Though it hardly advertises it, one of the aims of this quiet campaign really is to kill more cats.
"Unless adoptions increase, it's hard to avoid euthanasia" as one possible option in the effort to protect birds, said Rosalind Renfrew, a conservation biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. Even more bluntly, the respected (if often controversial) environmental writer Ted Williams wrote that the most "effective, humane alternative" for both birds and cats was 'to trap and euthanize."

No, not little Tabby sitting on a lap in front of the fireplace. That's a pet, an "owned cat." in the jargon of this discussion. No one wants to kill him or her.

The cats effectively marked for death by this persuasion campaign are the strays, the wild or feral cats that are responsible for 70 per cent of the cat-caused bird deaths according to that disputed study.

In Vermont, at least, pet cats would seem to outnumber their feral cousins. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vermonters are more likely to have a cat than the residents of any other state. Seventy percent of Vermont households have a pet, the Association said, with just about half the households owning one or more cats.

Though pets don't kill as many birds as feral cats, the bird-protectors have advice " or perhaps it's more like a command " for their owners..

"Keep your cat indoors." said Mark Labarr, a conservation biologist at Vermont Audubon, echoing the message of the Fish & Wildlife Department and other environmentalists.

    Not only will a cat kept inside not kill birds, LaBarr said, "it will probably live longer." Inside, a cat cannot be run over by a car or eaten by an owl or coyote. LaBarr said research shows a cat kept inside is likely to live four or five times longer than one allowed outdoors.

    The authors of the report " actually a compilation and assessment of earlier research " published in January in "Nature Communications" an on-line scientific journal, acknowledge that their figures are not exact. "The magnitude of mortality"remains speculative." they say, but their 'systematic review" of all the available evidence leads to the "estimate that free-ranging domestic cats kill (between) 1.4 (and) 3.7 billion birds"annually."

What this means, the authors conclude, is that cats "are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic (human-caused) mortality for US birds."

Robinson, who said habitat loss reduces bird populations more than does predation by cats, said her organization hired an "independent" statistical analyst, Gregory Mathews of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, to review the report.  Mathews found "numerous major flaws in the statistical analysis."

But "Nature Communications" has a transparent and apparently rigorous editing and peer review process. The study by the Smithsonian and Fish and Wildlife scientists was submitted in September, but not accepted until mid-December. Other organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, are treating its results as valid.

It is hardly news that cats kill birds. But why, all of a sudden, would they be killing so many that this predation has become a problem"

Perhaps, suggests Rosalind Renfrew, because there are so many more cats. Recent research, she said, showed that "40 years ago there were 30 million pet cats in (American) homes. It's tripled. There are now about 90 million."

What makes this more dangerous for birds, she said, is that "birds did not evolve with cats." So while other animals eat birds, those animals and the birds reached natural population equilibrium. Cats are not part of that process. They were brought here by people, with the potential to upset the equilibrium.

    "It's what cats do." said Renfrew, explaining that making sure a cat is well-fed before letting it out won't keep it from trying to catch birds.

    Mark LaBarr acknowledged that convincing cat owners to keep their "revered pets" inside can be "a tough one. It's difficult to talk to some people about that, even though it means they'll have lower vet bills."

Experts say that city and suburban cats probably kill more birds than do their rural counterparts. In rural areas, more birds are likely to stay in the forests, where cats rarely wander. Rural cats might also stay closer to home because they are in more danger from predators.

    But the standard Vermont barn cat cherished by so many farmers as rodent control agents qualify as "free-ranging domestic cats" that feed on birds.  According to Anne Ward of the Central Vermont Humane Society in Montpelier. those barns are home to the typical Vermont feral cat colony. The way to control them, she and other cat-lovers insist, is TNR " trap, neuter, replace. As the sterilized cats die off, the colonies should dwindle.

    Here is the crux of the scientific debate. Most environmentalists find that TNR has been a failure. "It has largely been unsuccessful." said LaBarr. And Ted Williams called TNR "a dangerous, cruel, and illegal practice" harmful to both cats and wildlife.

    But Joanne Bourbeau,  the former Vermont Director of the Humane Society of the Untie States, insists TNR is working in Vermont, where  "fewer and fewer cats are being brought into shelters."

    Becky Robinson insisted that it is euthanasia that has failed.

    "We've been catching and killing for a century." she said, "wasting millions of dollars of taxpayers" money. TNR works."

    But even TNR advocates acknowledge that it will only work if pet cats cease "migrating" to the feral colonies, and Anne Ward noted that in Vermont 'there's a lot of dropping off of non-feral cats in those barns" instead of taking them to shelters.

    TNR has been practiced for about 20 years, Robinson said. Considering that a cat in the wild has a life span of only a few years, if TNR were as successful as it supporters claim, most feral cat colonies would be almost gone by now.

    Though they are reluctant to say so this bluntly, the bird protectors believe that euthanizing the invasive feral cats " many of them disease-ridden and malnourished " is a small price to pay to protect and preserve native wildlife.

    In an animal-loving country, that's not an easy argument to make.
    What do you think" Are you for the birds or the cats" Or do you think they can all get along"

Does Vermont Need More Gun Control?

February 20, 2013

When it comes to firearms and Vermont, everybody knows:

(1) The typical Vermonter owns guns and opposes any effort to regulate them;
(2) with almost no violent crime in the state, there's no point to more gun control.

After all, isn't hunting so deep-seated in Vermont's culture that the opening of the November deer season is effectively a state holiday" Isn't Vermont's murder rate just about the lowest in the nation" Wasn't the Majority Leader of the State Senate forced into a hasty withdrawal of his bill to ban semi-automatic weapons lest it taint the entire Democratic Party"

Yes, yes, and yes.

Deer season is a big deal. Vermont has the second lowest violent crime and murder rates in America. Politicians are spooked by the perceived power of the "gun lobby."

But dig a little deeper and it turns out that, as is common with other conclusions "everybody knows," "everybody" might be wrong.

Using actual evidence rather than simple supposition, here are some facts: Most Vermonters do not hunt; at most, half the households own a gun; most people " including a majority of those who do hunt or own guns " favor stronger gun control laws; while it's true that those laws can't do much to make safe Vermonters much safer, they might make folks safer in Massachusetts and New York, where guns used in violent crime often come from Vermont.

"Vermont is part of a bigger whole." said Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, the Essex Junction Democrat who is sponsoring a gun control bill " one that has not been withdrawn " in the Legislature.

That sponsorship earned Waite-Simpson the warning that she was being 'targeted" for defeat by gun rights defenders.  The warning was typical gun politics, illustrating something else "everybody knows" about the gun debate: it's angry and confrontational, with neither side willing to compromise or even try to understand the other.

Dig a little deeper, and this doesn't seem true, either. Not that there isn't some anger on both sides of the divide. But not everybody responds in kind. Targeted a few years ago after sponsoring another gun-related bill (which fizzled, largely because lawmakers were frightened by gun rights activists), Waite-Simpson decided to learn more about guns and their owners. She bought a pistol, learned how to use it, and would like to find common ground with gun owners.

"I"m not opposed to law-abiding citizens possessing all the weapons they want." she said.

Nor is every gun enthusiast hostile to all gun control suggestions. As the former president and now secretary of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs and a devoted competitive shooter, Chris Bradley of Northfield certainly qualifies as a gun enthusiast. As such, he's wary of restrictions on the use or possession of firearms.

In general, he said, 'the firearm owning community is exceedingly leery of any legislation that affects firearms.  All indications are that we do not enforce the firearms laws we have on the books now, federal or otherwise, so the general feeling is:  Why do we want, or need, more "feel-good" laws that will go unenforced or are otherwise unenforceable""

But he also said he did not think convicted felons or people with serious mental illness should be permitted to own guns and "absolutely no problem" with the provisions of Waite-Simpson's bill (H. 124) that would harmonize state law with federal statutes banning felons from owning firearms, or require officials to report the names of some mental health patients to the National Instant Criminal Background System.

Which is not to say that cooperation and good will looms in Vermont's gun debate. First of all, not everyone on either side is as flexible as Waite-Simpson and Bradley. Besides, there are real differences between the two sides, differences of attitude as much as opinion.
As Bradley indicated, gun owners worry that the slaughter of children at Newtown, Connecticut last year inspired some Vermonters to "do something" even though gun crime is not a major problem in Vermont.

But according to law enforcement officials, Vermont guns are a real problem in other states. An analysis of government data by Mayors Against Illegal Guns showed that Vermont had the 16th highest rate of "crime gun exports" in the country. A "crime gun export" is a gun brought in from another state and used in a violent crime.  The analysis showed that in 2010 41 guns originating in Vermont were recovered after crimes committed in New York State and 35 in Massachusetts.

The Mayors group, headed by Mayors Michael Bloomberg of New York and Thomas Menino of Boston, does not even claim to be objective in the gun control debate. But its figures come from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and have not been refuted. They appear to demonstrate that Vermont is a "go-to" state for some criminals to obtain guns.

Is this because Vermont has weaker gun control laws than other states"

Yes, says Vermont's U.S. Attorney, Tristram Coffin.

"People we see coming up here to get guns come from states that have significant levels of state gun laws and regulations." he said. In  Massachusetts, someone trying to find a 'straw buyer" to purchase a gun for him "would have to find somebody who has a hand gun permit." Coffin said. In addition, the 'straw buyer" in Vermont could buy several firearms at once, which Coffin said would be more difficult in most nearby states.

Vermont has only one of the 10 state gun control laws recommended by the mayors group. State law does not impose criminal penalties for buying a gun for another person who is not eligible to buy one, or for buying a gun with false information. It does not require that lost or stolen guns be reported to law enforcement.

For years, this laissez-faire attitude has been attributed both to the relative lack of crime in the state, making gun control seem superfluous, and to the political clout of hunters and gun owners.

That clout is real. The "gun rights" constituency is not tiny, and it is single-minded; some gun-owners will vote for or against a candidate on that issue alone.

But it is by no means a majority. In 2011, the Fish & Wildlife Department reported, 57,548 adult Vermonters bought hunting licenses. That's less than 12 percent of the state's  495,866 eligible voters. Obviously, not all gun owners are hunters. Some are competitive target shooters, many own a gun for self-defense, and thousands of Vermonters own guns they rarely if ever use, having inherited them from parents and grand-parents who lived in a more rural state.

Exactly how many people in any state own guns is not easy to gauge. In a 2001 poll taken by the pro-gun group USACarry (as reported last year by the web site, 42 percent of Vermont households reported owning a firearm. That was the 20th  highest rate in the country, but with only 1.7 percent more gun-owning households than 25th-ranked Georgia.

 In polling, that's margin-of-error territory. When it comes to gun ownership, Vermont appears to be in or near the middle of the pack. In the new poll from Castleton Polling Institute, 50 percent of respondents said there was a firearm in their household.

But not all hunters and gun-owners oppose stronger gun control laws. A new poll conducted by the Castleton Polling Institute at Castleton State College will show that, on the contrary, even a majority of the hunters and gun-owners want some of those laws strengthened, as do a majority of all Vermonters. Details of the poll will be released Thursday, February 21.

There are two gun-related bills before the Legislature this year:

The other one, H. 243, sponsored by Rep. Alison Clarkson, a Woodstock Democrat, doesn't control guns. It would impose penalties on any adult in whose home a "child is likely to gain access to the firearm without the permission of the child's parent or legal guardian; and"obtains access to the firearm and uses it to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person."

This is similar to the bill Waite-Simpson sponsored back in 2010, the one legislators were afraid to touch, It is in response to the reality that while Vermont has low rate of violent crime, it has a relatively high rate of one violent act " suicide, and especially teenage suicide " usually by gun.

It was specifically in response to the suicide of Aaron Bing Xue, a 15-year-old freshman at Essex High School, who killed himself with a handgun another student had taken from his father's gun collection.

It's impossible to say with certainty that a Child Access Prevention (CAP) law would have prevented Aaron's death. Or that it would not have prevented it. The conventional wisdom in Montpelier holds that H. 243 is considered is unlikely to pass. But Chris Bradley, while questioning "just how big the problem really is in Vermont." added that "I personally have no serious objection to it."

- Jon Margolis 

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