Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Fearmongers still feed on sex offender anxiety

Michigan's online sex-offender registry is a grab bag of 39,000 residents prosecuted for everything from teenage promiscuity to violent sexual assault.

A bipartisan panel of Michigan legislators has been studying ways to make the registry more like the useful parental resource its inventors envisioned and less like the unwieldy instrument of persecution it has become.

But progress has been slow, and even as Lansing dawdles, local politicians are riding the public's anxiety over pedophilia to new heights of legislative lunacy.

The newest outbreak occurred last week in Warren, where City Council members directed their staff to draft an ordinance barring anyone on Michigan's sex-offender registry from the city's 20 public parks and two community recreation centers.

Sponsor Mindy Moore, a former Warren school board member elected to the City Council in 2003, says the park ban would supplement existing travel restrictions that prohibit registered sex offenders from venturing within 1,000 feet of a school.

Moore isn't the first politician to figure that few constituents will object to any new burden on people labeled as sex offenders, no matter how illogical or impractical to enforce. But I was astonished how little she knew about the 39,000 Michigan residents whose movements she proposes to restrict.

Moore uses the terms "child predator" and "registered sex offender" interchangeably, although most law enforcement officials agree that predators account for only a small percentage of registrants. In a phone interview Saturday, Moore said she had no idea how many people are on Michigan's registry, or what proportion have targeted minors.

"We can debate all day who should be on the sex-offender list," Moore said. "But my concern is who should be hanging around our parks." When I pointed out that most of those affected by Warren's park ban aren't considered child molesters, she responded: "If we can deter one predator from going to the park, it's worth it."

It's hard to think of any restriction that couldn't be justified with that sort of sweeping rationalization. Why stop at parks and schools? Should sex offenders who can't go within 1,000 feet of a baseball diamond be free to patronize ice cream parlors frequented by Little Leaguers? Should shopping malls and pizza parlors be off-limits? What about churches that provide meeting space for scout troops, or public libraries frequented by students after school hours?

In fact, many of those listed on Michigan's registry are nonviolent offenders at negligible risk of recidivism. Thousands are former youthful offenders trying to get on with normal lives despite restrictions that preclude them from attending their own children's parent-teacher conferences and make it difficult to find or retain jobs.

Moore and her kindred fearmongers offer no evidence that the restrictions they propose are cost-effective or narrowly tailored to protect children. The Warren City Council should rethink the park ban before the courts scuttle it on constitutional grounds.

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