Whitesburg KY

Celebrated sex offender laws doing more harm than good

Everyone wants children protected against sexual predators. Few crimes are more heinous than rape or murder of a child. Even lesser molestation can spell years of depression, anxiety and nightmares for victims. Some even suffer self-mutilation and suicidal tendencies.

But the national surge of states adopting Megan’s Law and Jessica’s Law – online registries of convicted sex offenders and stiff restrictions on where they can live – is going way overboard and causing more harm than good.

The statutes are named after young girls who were abducted, raped and murdered by convicted child molesters. Now there’s federal law virtually forcing states to set up publicly accessible Internet registries showing sex offenders’ residential addresses.

But the laws are turning out to be crude instruments with disturbing impacts.

First, they don’t differentiate between truly serious sex offenders and others convicted of lesser charges such as urinating in public, or teenagers having consensual sex, or kids who expose themselves as a prank.

For one and all, there’s a “scarlet letter,” notes Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit monitoring group. The Internet registry sites can be accessed by anyone and use often-misleading criminal justice language – for example, “indecent liberties with a child” – to depict simple teenage sex. Former offenders have a tougher time getting a job or adjusting to normal life. Vigilante violence has led to instances of stabbings, houses burned, even targeted killings by strangers who found names and addresses through online registries. Other registrants have been driven to suicide.

Now things are turning even worse with a spate of laws restricting where former sex offenders can live. Twenty-two states, plus hundreds of municipalities, are setting minimum distances – from 500 feet up to 2,500 feet – that a former offender’s residence must be from such places as schools, daycare centers, parks, movie theaters, stores, swimming pools, even public transit.

The result, all too often, is to make most – or in some cases virtually all – of a community off-bounds for a former offender to live. An expose last spring by reporter Isaiah Thompson of the Miami New Times revealed a whole colony of former offenders camping out under the noisy Julia Tuttle Causeway because a stiff Miami-Dade County residency requirement left them practically no other place to live.

The offenders are still there, cooking with small portable stoves, using battery-powered televisions and radios, stowing their belongings in plastic bags – and living in fear of vigilante attacks.

One resident was “Big Man” – a 6-foot, 250-pounder forced to leave his home because 23 years ago, when he was 19, he was charged with sexual assault on a minor. Big Man’s wife regularly showed up with food and supplies, telling Thompson: “Look at this place! There’s no running water to take a shower; there’s no toilets. My husband can’t work now; nobody’s going to hire him.”

Big Man departed before Christmas, his case resolved by his parole officers. But with newcomers, the under-the-bridge census is still more than 30. Dade County officials continue to profess no concern.

Which in fact is not unusual. Pressing a residency requirement in Georgia, state House Majority Leader Jerry Keen said: “My intent personally is to make it so onerous on those that are convicted of these offenses that they will want to move to another state.”

Mayors and county officials who press harsh residency restrictions are doing the same – effectively banishing individuals who’ve already been punished by the law. Talk about violating constitutional rights.

Reports from Iowa, which enacted stiff residency restrictions for sex offenders in 2000, show the statute may be promoting conditions that easily lead to crime. Ex-offenders are listing their residence at such spots as “the Raccoon River” or “behind the Target on Euclid.” Close to half have simply disappeared, so police no longer know where they are.

Human Rights Watch doesn’t underestimate the horror of many sex crimes, or the need for close controls on dangerous offenders. But neither states nor localities, it argues, should pass blanket restrictions on all released individuals. Instead, as a model Minnesota law mandates, restrictions should be based on a careful evaluation of the offender’s personal and family situation by a panel of law enforcement, victim advocacy and specialized treatment providers.

The Megan and Jessica cases are deeply tragic, but they miss a glaring fact: that over 90 percent of sex crimes against children aren’t committed by outsiders at all, but rather by family members or family acquaintances. If there’s prevention work to be done, that’s where it should be focused. Not by Internet scarlet letters, and certainly not by residency laws that hound ex-offenders out of their communities, separate them from their families, and quite possibly drive them into isolation and new criminal behavior.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

©2008 Washington Post Writers

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