Numbers? You Want Numbers? We Got Numbers!
Feb. 10, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — What jumped out at me as I was reading Tara Singh’s Fault Lines post, “Clergy & Child Sex Abuse: Quick Forgiveness Is Cheap Grace,” (besides the great title) was the statistic.
“Wow,” I thought to myself. And “Wow” again. 38%!
But it wasn’t actually the number itself. I mean 38% is either way lower than you might have thought or way higher or dead on with your guess. Or mine. No, it wasn’t the number. It was the precision of the thing.
Complete with a link. So really, that means that out of every 100 victims of child sexual abuse (however that might be defined), 62 of them never report it.
And what I thought, what inspired the Wow and Wow again, was that the proper number might as well be 7. Or 73. Or 14. Because, really, who the hell knows?
OK, I’m not a statistician. I focus on street crime because I understand hitting someone over the head with a brick and taking their wallet I get raping and pillaging. I understand the mechanics of murder. I don’t have the same basic understanding of things like fraudulent tax shelters; I can’t read spreadshits , er, spreadsheets (honest, it was a typo, but it makes the point) without major study. I’ve represented people in medicare fraud cases and fraudulent bankruptcies and the like, but it’s an extra layer of struggle, and not mostly worth it for me.
So numbers? Feh.
Still, if 62 out of 100 kids who are victims of sex abuse don’t report it, how do we know? Yeah, I get it that someone’s extrapolating from something. But it’s a fucking secret. So the result is, at best, a guess.
Consider the prevalence of campus sexual assault. Depending on who you ask, somewhere between 2 and 80% of women on college campuses are sexually assaulted. 20% seems to be the most commonly floated number in the mainstream media. But the basic truth, even once you correct for definitional issues (no, leering is not sexual assault), is that nobody knows. It’s all guesswork. Oh, you can look at reports and then conduct surveys and ask how many people didn’t report, but then there are other issues – bias, uncertainty, and dishonest/confused responses.
Leave sex behind. What’s the percentage of factually innocent people in prison? Well, the Innocence Project asks that question (actually, they ask “How many innocent people are there in prison”) and then offer this answer.
We will never know for sure, but the few studies that have been done estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison).
Okay. And how do they come up with those numbers? (Not the 20,000, that’s just arithmetic from the 1% hypothesis; but the 2.3-5% estimates?) Well, you look at the people who’ve been exonerated and then extrapolate. But that assumes that the number of exonerated bears some meaningful relationship to the number of factually innocent folks.
You know, out of every 100 prisoners for whom we can do DNA testing, and in fact do DNA testing, ___% prove to be the wrong person. But, of course, it’s not a random sample that we do the testing on. Not even a random sample of, say, rapists where DNA testing is often possible. So the numbers need to be massaged. And then why the hell should we assume that the percentage of innocents convicted of bank robbery bears any relationship to the percentage of innocents convicted of rape. And what about the rapists whose accurate defense was consent, so the DNA doesn’t exonerate but they’re innocent anyhow?
I need to be clear about this. I’m not saying that all numbers are worthless. Sure, there are
Lies, damned lies, and statistics
As Mark Twain apparently inaccurately said Disraeli said.
And I get how, for instance, through multiple regression analysis and the like (no, I don’t understand exactly how that works, but I get the general idea) and with careful and thorough raw data collection, we can tell that race of the victim is a major determinant of whether someone will end up sentenced to execution or death by natural means in prison.
But let’s go back to Tara Singh’s 38%. And then, well, a bit of context for it.
However, even the most stalwart supporter of clergy-penitent privilege has to concede that child sexual abuse is a heinous crime that must be curbed. Moreover, there are two significant public policy considerations that influence mandatory child sexual abuse reporting that need considering.
- Only 38% of child victims report abuse, meaning that the overwhelming majority of instances of abuse never come to the attention of the police; and
- Many (if not most) of sexual abusers will repeat their behavior, and without intervention, the offender will likely not stop his/her behavior. Sex offenders require specialized treatment and this treatment is most effective when ordered and monitored by courts.
The first part’s easy. Yeah, of course child sexual abuse is a heinous crime. Curb it indeed. But then there are those “public policy considerations.”
There’s the 38% which is essentially meaningless but usefully (for pandering purposes, at least) suggests that it’s extraordinarily common. (Though, you’ll notice, there’s no actual claim – not even an essentially meaningless extrapolated number – of just how common.) And then there’s the recidivism claim. Which is, certainly, what we’ve all been told, repeatedly. Except it’s nonsense.
What data exists suggests that in fact the recidivism rate among sex offenders is remarkably low. Consider the track record of sex offenders released from prison in 1994.
Based on official arrest records, 517 of the 9,691 released sex offenders (5.3%) were rearrested for a new sex crime within the first 3 years following their release.
Too many? Sure. “Many (if not most)”? Nope.
Does that mean Singh is wrong to argue that the clergy-penitent privilege should be eliminated where the penitent confesses to having committed a sex offense? Does it mean that Singh is wrong to advocate for making clergy mandatory reporters? No. It doesn’t mean either of those things.
It does mean, though, that the merits of the claims have to stand on their own, not on data that’s either made up or downright misleading.
How much is too much? Is any price worth it? Is the game worth the candle?
* The link provides information about each of the 156 and also an explanation of the criteria for listing.