Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Editorial: "Law on sex offenders a threat to rights of all"

Law on sex offenders a threat to rights of all
Target resources at those posing greatest risk.


November 30, 2005

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the residency restriction for convicted sex offenders has spun out of control. Not to Iowa legislative leaders, however. They apparently believe an ineffective law that makes them look tough on crime is preferable to one that actually protects children.

The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday declined to hear an appeal from a group of Iowans challenging the state's 2,000-foot residency law. But surely at some point the courts will rule these laws unconstitutional. It's better that the Legislature begin now to fix the problem. A good place to begin is by eliminating its one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, focus law-enforcement resources on closely monitoring those few certifiably dangerous sexual predators who pose the greatest threat to children. Evicting almost every offender who once committed a crime involving a minor is making it even harder for law enforcement to track the whereabouts of the truly dangerous.

No one expects most elected legislators and judges to care about the civil rights of child molesters, but here is something they ought to care about: the idea that government would have the power to banish any person from living anywhere in the state — except perhaps under a bridge or in a cornfield — on the presumption they might at some future point commit a crime.

Our system of criminal justice is supposed to operate from the principle that once convicted criminals have served their time and paid their debt to society, they are free to return to it. The sex-offender restrictions violate that principle. Even after prison sentences and paroles, the state marks these individuals as potential criminals for the remainder of their lives.

What began as a ban on living within 2,000 feet of child-care facilities and schools is spreading because of fears the law would create sex-offender "ghettos" and leave children vulnerable in other public places. So cities and counties are adding libraries, swimming pools and other facilities, effectively banning sex offenders from living anywhere in many counties. Now neighboring states are being forced to respond.

The ability to live somewhere is a right. The ability to travel is a right. Freedom from being punished twice for the same crime is a right. Freedom from being punished for a crime that is created after the fact is a right. Those rights are protected by the U.S. and Iowa constitutions — for everyone.

Defenders of state laws imposing lifetime punishments on convicted sex offenders have gotten away with indifference to the civil-liberties implications of such laws because of the detestable nature of the crime. But if the state has unlimited power to punish people for the remainder of their lives for one class of crimes, it has the power to apply that punishment to any person for any or all crimes. Government should not have that power.


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