Last last month, two state senators in New York—Jeffrey Klein and Diane Savino—issued a report laying out an apparently scary set of numbers. In New York City, Pokémon from Pokémon Go were spotted in front of the homes of 57 people on the state sex registry. Fifty-nine Poké gyms or Pokéstops and 73 other Pokémon items were within a half-block of a registrant’s residence.
To be clear, there have been no reports of Pokémon-related sex crimes. The senators’ document does cite the case of a man on Indiana’s sex registry who was found playingPokémon Go near where a 16-year-old boy also was playing. In another case in Arizona, the game developers put a Pokéstop at a historic hotel that has since been turned into a halfway house for 43 men on the state registry.
That was convincing enough for New York governor Andrew Cuomo to issue an order banning sex offenders on parole from playing Pokémon Go this week. On Wednesday, Klein, Savino, and additional senators introduced state bills that, among other things, would ban game developers from putting “in-game objectives” within a hundred feet of the home of a registrant.
Why target those with a sex crime on their record? A spokesperson for Klein’s office told VICE this is because of the “very high” recidivism rates of sex offenders compared with other criminals, citing data from a report that Klein co-authored last year. That document notes a re-arrest rate of 48 percent within eight years for those on New York’s sex registry, based on 2007 state data.
But that re-arrest rate includes charges for any crime—not just sex offenses, the target of the legislation. And it confirms a fact that recidivism researchers have long known: When sex offenders do commit another crime, it’s far more likely to be a non-sexual one.
If anything, the data indicates that sex offenders’ re-offense rates for other crimes are likely lower, not higher. A 2010 New York State report found that the state’s offenders for all crimes had a three-year reconviction rate (a recidivism standard that should produce much lower numbers) of 42 percent.
More important, state figures show that people on the sex-offense registry have relatively low rates of reoffending for sex crimes. A 2007 state government report—the latest data available—cites a new sex crime re-arrest rate among registrants of 11 percent. And on the federal level, it’s even lower: In perhaps the largest recidivism study, the US Department of Justice reported a three-year sex offender reconviction rate of 3.5 percent.
In a statement to VICE, Klein’s office responded to this by saying: “We are being proactive in taking legislative steps to protect even one child enjoying this game from being hurt by a pedophile.” (Governor Cuomo’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Savino’s office referred requests to Klein.)
For one thing, committing a sex-related crime does not necessarily make someone a pedophile. In recent years, people have been put on sex-offender registries for consensual sex, streaking, and public urination. But more notably, legislators’ imperviousness to the data is part of the reason America’s sex-offender laws have increasingly grown in number and complexity since the mid 90s.
In the run-up to passage of the 1996 Megan’s Law, for example, Republican representative Jennifer Dunn asserted on the House floor that “the rate of recidivism for [child sex] crimes is astronomical because these people are compulsive.” In the Senate, Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison asserted, “The repeat crime rate for sex offenders is estimated to be as much as ten times higher than the recidivism rate of other criminals.”
And in a floor debate in 2005 over the Adam Walsh Act, Florida Republican representative Mark Foley (soon to resign for sending sexual messages to underage House pages) said, “There is a 90 percent likelihood of recidivism for sexual crimes against children. Ninety percent… that is their record.”
None of those statements had any research basis. But those declarations and others have fueled the sex-crime policies that have come in since the mid 1990s—from sex registries to bans on offenders living near schools to laws prohibiting registrants from participating in Halloween. Since these restrictions were built on the faulty premise that sex offenders have high re-offense rates, it’s unsurprising that they’ve done basically nothing to prevent new sex crimes.
For example, a meta-analysis of 20 years of research in the Journal of Crime and Justice noted that none of the six studies on registries conducted between 1995 and 2011 found that the registries lowered recidivism. Similarly, none of the eight studies between 2003 and 2012 of bans on where registrants can live found that they had any effect on sex crime rates or recidivism, according to a US Department of Justice summary.
And a 2009 study of the impact of Halloween Laws on sex crimes found no increased rate of sex crimes on Halloween. “These findings raise questions about the wisdom of diverting law enforcement resources to attend to a problem that does not appear to exist,” the researchers drily noted.
If the same is said someday about a new Poké law, there will be a good reason: The vast majority of sex crimes are committed by first-time offenders. In a 2007 study, the Minnesota Department of Corrections reported that about 98 percent of its 10,600 sex crimes between 1990 and 2005 were by people never before convicted.
So while there’s no evidence of Poké-predator problem, even if there were, a gaming law couldn’t deter most new sex crimes.
One expert on sexual violence expert says bills like New York’s make a classic mistake. “This is another bill based on the concept of ‘stranger danger,’ which the research shows comprises a very small portion of sex crimes against children,” said Katie Gotch, an Oregon-based sexual behavior treatment provider who is a national co-chair of the National Partnership to End Interpersonal Violence, in an interview with VICE. “The majority of sexual abuse perpetrated against children is by someone the victim knows.”