Steve Blow Is Right About Sex Offender Laws, and Dallas Should Pay Attention

The debate about media sensationalism and moral panic concerning sex offenders is always a tough one for me, mainly because I think most news media chase the public's interest in stories more than we create it. Our rule usually is that the biggest story is the one the most people will read. In that sense readers tell us what to write more than we tell them what to read.

But, yeah, that is what I would say, isn't it? When I see somebody else in my craft bringing a sound against-the-grain argument on a terribly inflamed topic like sexual victimization, the least I can do is salute, which is what I'm doing here to Steve Blow.

In recent weeks Blow has used his column in The Dallas Morning News to present research showing that many media clichés about sex offenders are wrong and much of the legislation spurred by those stories has been ineffectual as a protection of the public. Take, for example, the popular belief that sex offenders are incurable and can't stop repeating their behavior. Incurable as compared to what?

The three-year recidivism rate for drunk driving is 51 percent (my research, not his), for auto theft 70 percent, for burglary 74 percent. For sex offenses it's 5.3 percent.

In an especially moving portrait of one sex offender who was willing to be named and photographed with his family, Blow told the story of a man who was a 12-year-old boy when he engaged in sexual play with an 8-year-old sister. Now he's a registered sex offender for life.

The larger point Blow makes is that there is not much research to prove or even indicate a public benefit from onerous residency restrictions for sex offenders. Meanwhile, the studies show that the people who do offend would not have been stopped or impeded by a residency requirement.

All of this is churning right now in Dallas because our mayor is crusading for tighter residency restrictions. You will remember that a year and a half ago New York Magazine was fawning over Mike Rawlings for his campaign against beating up women, at least a portion of their enthusiasm up there having to do with surprise at finding a man in Texas who was opposed. With his new anti-sex-offender crusade, Rawlings is probably less surprising to New York Magazine, not that I think he's calibrating for their approval anyway. I'm sure he's as sincere on this as he was on wife-beating.

Sam Merten, the mayor's spokesperson, has told us here at The Dallas Observer that the mayor doesn't have a specific outcome or policy in mind and brought the issue to the council only in response to a Channel 8 WFAA reports May pointing out that Dallas is an outlier in the region for not having such restrictions. WFAA, by the way, has come back since then with the same kind of balancing other-side-of-the-coin reporting that Blow has been doing.

But since Rawlings began beating the drum for tighter residency restrictions, I have heard a certain amount of back-channel grumbling from city council members who resent being put in a position. Not a one of them -- no one in public office in Texas -- can say anything that could ever be twisted later to sound like sympathy for sex offenders. But some of them are willing to say privately they just don't know whether residency restrictions make any real sense or not.

The resentment I have heard from some of the council is a powerful illustration of the way arguments like this can imprison people morally and intellectually, making them afraid even to ask what they know are fair questions. Do take notice of this: when Rawlings put this issue before the council, the council did not jump to rally behind him. Instead they agreed to study the issue, and I am hearing the study will be very long and very careful.

In that atmosphere of political and moral tension, it's enormously constructive for somebody like Blow to put some real facts on the table publicly. He's sort of giving everybody permission to talk about the truth.

Oh, I know those ninnies at the News will get all on their high horses about me saying this last thing and say it's not true and say I'm a tinfoil hat and a liar and a pickpocket and stuff, but, damn it, I believe this to be the case: I believe it was a lot harder for Steve Blow at The Dallas Morning News to call for sanity on the issue of residency requirements for sex offenders than it would have been for me to do here. I did not. He did. So he deserves the points.

Phew. I was afraid for a while there I wouldn't be able to get through this and find a way to say something bad about them. Got the old thinking cap on, though.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze