Monday, October 30, 2006

No turning back (on sex offender laws)

Iowa legislators rushed into passing draconian sex offender laws. Now they find those laws are making the public less safe, not more. But they can't turn back the clock, and they can't turn back the laws either. Seems they forgot the maxim: "Look before you leap."

Will California be next?

Sex crime residency laws exile offenders

Des Moines — Shortly after 8 each evening, David DenAdel kisses his wife and three kids goodbye and leaves his home in the peaceful suburb of Clive. A half-hour later, he pulls up at an unfurnished rental in a scruffy pocket of Des Moines, one of the few spots in the region where he can legally spend the night.

His children, ages 3 to 6, "think maybe I'm camping, but they really aren't sure," said DenAdel, 37, who pays $650 a month for the rental and $1,500 a month for the mortgage on his home. "It's not easy leaving them every night, but it's the law."

A little more than a year ago, Iowa began barring sex offenders such as DenAdel, convicted of sexual abuse on a 15-year-old girl, from living within 2,000 feet of a school or child-care center. Soon after, cities and counties passed even stricter rules, adding libraries, swimming pools, parks and bike trails to the protected list.

Now, much of urban Iowa is off limits to those whose past includes a sex crime against a minor.

As Californians prepare to vote next week on Proposition 83, which would impose a similar residency ban, Iowa is becoming an example of the unintended consequences of such measures.

Prosecutors, police officials and even victims rights groups say the crackdown has backfired, driving some offenders into rural towns and leaving others grouped at motels, campgrounds, freeway rest stops or on the streets.

Many have simply gone underground, authorities say, with more than twice as many registered sex offenders now considered missing than before the law took effect.

'Off the radar scope'

"These guys are off the radar scope, and we've got no idea where they are," said Bill Vaughn, chief deputy of the Polk County Sheriff's Department in Des Moines.

All around the Hawkeye State, police and sheriff's deputies say they are overwhelmed by the task of chasing down child molesters who violate the residency law. And although they don't often pity sex felons, authorities say the house-hunting challenge faced by the ex-cons is almost insurmountable.

"When they call and ask where they can legally live, my response is, 'Do you know anybody in Nebraska?' " said Des Moines Police Sgt. Barry Arnold. "It's a nightmare."

Iowa prosecutors agree. Their statewide association earlier this year declared the law a failure and asked the Legislature to pursue a different strategy to protect children from sex crimes.

The Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, representing victims, echoed that request. Executive Director Elizabeth Barnhill said Iowans are less safe now because sex offenders, facing banishment, are absconding in large numbers.

"Probation and parole supervisors cannot effectively monitor … offenders who are living under bridges, in parking lots, in tents at parks or at interstate truck stops," she said.

Despite such concerns, Iowa's Legislature has declined to overhaul the law. One member, Republican Sen. Larry McKibben, acknowledged that "things may not be working the way we'd hoped." But in an election year, he said, legislators would not support anything "making life easier for these pariahs."

"We live in a nasty political environment, and I certainly wouldn't have wanted to take a vote that somebody could turn into a direct mail piece saying I was going soft on sex offenders," said McKibben, who led a legislative task force that studied the law's effect.

Iowa is among about 20 states and hundreds of communities that have adopted rules governing where released sex felons may live.

In California, Proposition 83 would ban registered sex offenders — including those whose victims were adults — from homes within 2,000 feet of a school or park and would allow local governments to adopt more restrictive rules. The initiative also would increase prison and parole terms for some crimes and require electronic monitoring of registered sex offenders for life, an added step that backers say would prevent some of the problems that have surfaced in Iowa.

According to maps prepared by the California Senate, Proposition 83 would bar sex offenders from living in much of Greater Los Angeles and virtually all of San Francisco, leaving only the less densely populated suburbs and rural areas open to them. Already, some local governments are adopting Iowa-like ordinances.

Although sexual assaults on children have declined nationwide in recent years, several disturbing crimes have stirred politicians into action. Among them was the February 2005 murder of a 9-year-old Florida girl, Jessica Lunsford. Police believe she was killed by a convicted sex offender working at her school.

Advocates believe forbidding offenders to live near schools decreases their access to children and thus reduces assaults. Critics say the residency laws are anchored in faulty logic because strangers are responsible for only about 10% of sexual attacks on minors. The vast majority of assaults on young victims are committed by people they know and trust, often family members.

"There is no evidence that residence restrictions prevent sex crimes or increase public safety," wrote Jill S. Levenson, a professor of human services at Florida's Lynn University, in a 2005 report to the Florida Legislature.

In Iowa, the residency law breezed through the Legislature in 2002 but was held up in the courts. The Iowa Supreme Court upheld it in 2005.

As a result, housing in 70% of Greater Des Moines, with a population of 522,450, became off limits to overnight stays by child molesters. After city and county officials added restrictions, more than 98% of Greater Des Moines' neighborhoods were covered.

Fearing they would become dumping grounds for sex offenders, officials in rural and suburban communities soon enacted their own laws. In some towns, the ordinances are so restrictive that remote cornfields are the only places a sex offender can legally live.

Des Moines police assembled a team of 30 officers to deliver eviction notices to 300 offenders living in illegal locations. Often, distances were in dispute, so officers used radar guns — the ones designed to catch speeders — to measure from front doors to the property lines of schools or day-care centers.

Among those on eviction lists were two offenders at a nursing home and another at a veterans hospital. Des Moines' downtown homeless shelter also fell within a protected zone, meaning about 30 offenders living there had to leave last winter, said the shelter's executive director, Jean Brown.

"So now they're living under bridges," Brown said. "Thank goodness my kids are grown. Because it's far more dangerous to have these guys out on the streets and desperate."

Uprooted, some of the 6,150 sex offenders required to register annually with Iowa's Department of Public Safety began listing unusual addresses. Bryan Etherington reports living at the "I-80 rest area, mile marker 119," in Waukee. A trucker who can no longer live at the home he shared with his elderly mother sleeps in his rig at the Flying J truck stop in Clive.

Perhaps the largest enclaves are in mobile home parks. One recent night on the outskirts of Des Moines, two state officers who supervise sex offenders on probation pulled into such a park to visit James Brake, 37, convicted of indecent contact with a child.

'There's nowhere else'

Approaching Brake's door, Officer Kurt Kness pointed to several preschoolers playing, unsupervised, in a mud puddle outside another rickety mobile home, parked about 20 feet away.

"The crazy thing is, you've got this guy in this trailer because there's nowhere else for him to live, but there are 8 million kids here, running all over the place," Kness said.

A few miles away, another colony of sex offenders has taken hold at the Palace Inn, a low-slung motel bordering a state highway. Yellow with purple doors, the motel is a place of troubled pasts and shaky futures, housing about half a dozen ex-cons.

Among them is Adam Lozano, 22, convicted at age 15 of lewd and lascivious conduct with two younger girls.

"I can't really seem to get ahead," said Lozano. "I know they're trying to protect people … but I think this law is causing a lot of mental strain."

Roger Wheeler, 43, is feeling that strain. A forklift operator, Wheeler lives with his girlfriend, Ruth Lilly, and their three children in a rented mobile home in rural Maxwell. Last week, his phone was disconnected because of a delinquent payment, and he was rushed to the hospital with chest pains, which doctors attributed to stress.

Wheeler served three years for a 1992 sexual assault on a 12-year-old girl he knew. Off probation now, he said he still attends group therapy once a month to talk about his problem "and how to keep living a healthy life."

The residency law is a big topic at the group sessions, Wheeler said, and, in his view, is the kind of thing "that can make people snap."

"These laws keep coming down, making it harder and harder to get by, and you just wonder all the time what's next," Wheeler said.

"Does telling a sex offender where he can or can't live make a difference? No. All somebody's got to do is get in their car and drive someplace."

"The initiative also would ... require electronic monitoring of registered sex offenders for life, an added step that backers say would prevent some of the problems that have surfaced in Iowa."

The backers are wrong. As I may or may not have noted before on this blog, the "electronic monitors" are incredibly easy to defeat with just one inexpensive, legal purchase at your local Safeway, Food Lion, or A&P (assuming the necessary material isn't already in your kitchen). There are ways, too, to delay for hours the hint that even a real-time GPS monitor is being foiled -- long enough to cut it off and disappear.

All these laws are going to accomplish is to make their targets think less on how they can rejoin society, and longer and harder about how to evade the exclusionary laws that society is leveling against them. I ask you: is that really a good idea?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Christopher Uggen: murder of washington sex offenders

I've written at some length about the hyper-stigma that accompanies the "sex offender" label in the contemporary United States. Whenever I even hint that this stigma may hinder rather than help public safety, as in this AP story in June, I'm swamped with supportive calls and emails from sex offenders and their families and vaguely threatening or accusing mail from others. And, of course, breathless invitations to appear on cable news shows as "liberal punching bag o' the day." [Can you believe it, this guy actually thinks sex offenders have it too tough?] Now comes this story from the Seattle Times and Bellingham Herald:

BELLINGHAM — Last Friday night, a man claiming to be an FBI agent dropped in on three Level 3 sex offenders living together, supposedly to warn them of an Internet "hit list" targeting sex offenders. The man was not an FBI agent, but he may have been enforcing a hit list of his own creation. Two of the roommates were found dead early Saturday of gunshot wounds, and Bellingham police are investigating a crime that authorities say may be one of the nation's most serious cases of vigilantism aimed at sex offenders. The killings also highlight a potential problem about Washington's 1990 law requiring sex offenders to register their addresses so the public can keep track of them.

Yes, if the story checks out as reported, I guess murder qualifies as a potential problem. Given the demonization of sex offenders, I'm certain that few will shed tears over these murders. I'm also sure that the vigilante had never read the Bureau of Justice Statistics report or large research literature showing low recidivism rates of sex offenders relative to other former prisoners. Yet our FBI imposter/wannabe was well-informed on two counts: (1) he knew that "level-three sex offenders" Hank Eisses, 49, James Russell, 42, and Victor Vasquez, 68 could be found at 2825 Northwest Avenue; and, (2) he knew the specific details of their crimes -- offenses that took place in 1997, 1994, and 1991, respectively. Clearly one cannot blame the print or broadcast media, or the state department of corrections, or local law enforcement, or the state legislature for the actions of an accused vigilante. Nevertheless, the case raises troubling questions about whether the policies of each institution are best serving the public interest. To my knowledge, there is no clear evidence of less new sex offending in communities that impose greater stigma. Lacking such evidence, I fear that the moral panic exemplified by current notification procedures is a net loss for public safety.

Even years before their scheduled release, both male and female prisoners have told me they feared "the internet" and public availability of information about them. Rest assured that the Bellingham murder story will quickly make the rounds of every TV room and sex offender unit in state penitentiaries. It is not a story of deterrence that will keep them from future crime. It is not a story of redemption or martyrdom that will give them strength as they work through the tough times. It is instead a story of the hysterical vigilante lying in wait, a story that embodies their fears about life after prison and their dim prospects for ever becoming a normal citizen in a community. And it makes them wonder why the hell they should go to treatment.


From the Wisconsin Radio Network: Where should sex offenders live?

A legislative study committee is trying to come up with proposed legislation regulating where sex offenders can live.

There is no state law spelling out where convicted sex offenders can or can not live according to committee co-chair state representative Garey Bies. Just a Department of Corrections policy which says they have to return to the county where the offense too place.

More and more communities want to set their own laws, such as Algoma where they want no sex offender to stay within 2-thousand feet of schools, playgrounds and churches.

But Bies says in larger communities that means there's almost no where for them to live and the rural communities don"t want convicted se offenders living there.

Just some of the questions the committee is trying to answer before proposing a bill in the next legislative session.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Towns should not push sex offenders too far

A thoughtful editorial out of New Jersey's "Home News Tribune":

Maureen Kanka, the mother of the murdered girl who inspired Megan's Law, put it clearly and succinctly last week when asked about the rash of new municipal laws that strictly limit where convicted pedophiles can reside. "I think what these municipalities are doing is letting government know that we don't want sex offenders out on the street, period," Kanka said.

Who can disagree? Given the choice, there are few if any among us who would opt to have a sex offender in our midst, or frankly anywhere our children, grandchildren or friends' children might gather. There is a reason dozens of towns in the state have adopted so-called "pedophile-free" zones. There also is a reason the state has gone to extraordinary lengths to restrict the rights of convicted sex offenders, including a law that allows it to keep the worst behind bars indefinitely.

Still, there are limits to what a government can and ought to do, and last week the state took a step toward reigning in the marauding municipalities.

It sued a South Jersey community that seeks not only to prevent convicted offenders from moving within 2,500 feet of schools, playgrounds, libraries, churches and parks, but also intends to make offenders who already live in those areas leave. The state has sued on behalf of a 76-year-old man with a mentally-ill wife, who for more than 35 years as lived about 2,100 feet from a lake where children sometimes swim. He was convicted in 2000 of abusing three young children, including two grandchildren who lived with him. The municipality says the man must move despite the fact that he is in poor health and of limited means: He and his wife live on a $1,200 monthly Social Security check.

Besides the question of whether we want to live in a society in which a municipality has the right to force a man to move from his longtime home after he has served his sentence and after a state authority has judged him fit enough to return to his residence, residents also need to ask whether the law makes sense. Experts warn that disrupting the lives of sex offenders is dangerous, since stress often contributes to their problems, but it doesn't take a psychologist to figure out that a community, and society as a whole, might be better off with a stable sex offender living near a lake than an angry, bitter, desperate one living 500 feet or so farther away.

In filing its suit, the state Public Defender's Office noted that Megan's Law already gives state parole officers the right to prohibit where sex offenders can live. Surely, if any government agency deserves the right to make a decision on behalf of the public, it ought to be an agency with some expertise and some perspective on the subject and the person involved.

Without that expertise and that dispassionate assessment, the local law becomes nothing more than exclusionary zoning, a race to push pedophiles out of "decent" places and into some sort of ghettos. Witch hunts are still witch hunts, even if those being hunted are hardly sympathetic. The municipalities ought to be stopped.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Sex offender residency plan draws fire in Ulster (NY)


Residents slammed the Ulster County Legislature’s proposed law, which would restrict where some sex offenders can live, during Wednesday’s sparsely attended public hearing.

The proposed law would prohibit Level 2 and 3 sex offenders who have committed crimes against minors from living within 1,000 feet of primary and secondary schools and child care facilities.

Bill McKenna of Woodstock said the law would do more harm than good.

‘‘In the end all this is going to do is push them out of Kingston into other parts of the county,’’ he said.

The Woodstock town board member said the county needs to address the situation on many levels, not just residency.

Krista Barringer, director of the Ulster County Youth Bureau, said she would rather see programs that empower children to identify and avoid dangerous situations.

‘‘Most sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim or the victim’s family,’’ she said, implying the residency law only addresses the stereotypical stranger abduction.

Only three people spoke at the hearing. The Legislature will vote on the proposed law Oct. 11.

Hm. "Only three people spoke at the hearing." Interesting to see where this goes.

17 sex offenders in 1 spot offers object lesson

Not the first jurisdiction to figure out that if you exclude them them from other locales, you end up with concentrations of sex offenders too toxic to tolerate. Geez, doesn't anybody peruse the Internet anymore?

Six miles north of Santa Cruz, in the rural enclave of Happy Valley, the residents are anything but happy these days. Their rage has everything to do with 17 tenants on an old estate that the actress Elizabeth Montgomery once bought for her parents.

And no, this story has nothing to do with entertainment or family pride. Montgomery's parents moved on long ago. In the sad remains of grandeur, the tenants in question are all sex offenders, the majority of them child molesters.

When the Happy Valley residents found out about the concentration from the Megan's Law Web site (, they descended on the Santa Cruz County supervisors Tuesday with the fury of folks who had just learned that the bacteria of the black plague was dumped into their drinking water.

They had a litany of complaints: They said that sewage effluent still comes from the Happy Valley Villa and that the home doesn't meet building or health codes. By far the biggest lament, however, was that the state located that many sex offenders in their midst without alerting them.

``We have to protect ourselves,'' one Happy Valley resident, Alan Grattan, told the board. ``We can't wait for something bad to happen.''

Jessica's Law

The tale teaches lessons about the unintended consequences of Jessica's Law, the state ballot proposal that will make it all but impossible to house sex offenders in many urban areas.

But perhaps I get ahead of the story. It really begins with the property, a sprawling piece of land at 4573 Branciforte Drive in the hollows of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Once an old mansion lined with classical statues and shielded by a wrought-iron gate, the property became a psychiatric hospital and then a group home that now houses 25 to 30 tenants. The suburban-style chalet attached to the main house has the run-down feel of a tired motel.

Although I left a note on the door of the current owner, Arlen Hafner, he didn't respond. The neighbors say Hafner sees nothing wrong with renting to sex offenders. They report that he's even offered to introduce them at a parents' picnic for Happy Valley School, 1.3 miles away.

That raises the question: Just what were state parole authorities thinking when they put that many sex offenders in one spot?

``I understand how the neighbors may feel,'' said Carolyn Graham, the assistant regional administrator of the parole office that covers Santa Cruz County. ``But with the knowledge and surveillance and attention we're giving the parolees at this location, we believe we have all the issues considered. By law, they're allowed to reside in that area.''

You can argue -- and some do -- that lumping that many offenders together offers convenience to law enforcement. Authorities can keep a better tab on offenders in one place rather than in 17.

Difficult to locate

What's more, it's difficult to find places for these guys to live. While it's rural, the Happy Valley Villa is close enough to provide access to drug and alcohol rehabilitation, counseling, parole, etc. And yes, I know most sex offenders commit their offenses on people they know well.

What is legal, however, isn't always politically wise. How would you feel if 17 sex offenders were located within a couple of blocks of your home? However safe authorities believe the situation is, you can't blame the neighbors for fighting it. ``We're just not going to let this go,'' said Laura Grattan, a mother of two who lives next door.

That's one reason I'm opposing Jessica's Law in November. If Proposition 83 passes, you can count on more pitched battles like this in rural areas. Given that the proposal's provisions about locating offenders near parks or schools would assure that urban areas like San Jose won't have many places to house them, that's a recipe for trouble.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Jessica's Law is revenge says Lunsford

Score one for truthfulness, if not wisdom:

Nov. 7 vote unlikely final word on state sex-offender law
The Press-Enterprise, Inland Southern California, Oct 5, 2006

SACRAMENTO - In the 1 ½ years since the kidnap, rape and slaying of Florida 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, almost 20 states have passed laws in her name toughening penalties on sex offenders.

On Nov. 7, California voters will have their say.

Prop. 83, dubbed Jessica's Law by supporters, proposes the toughest sex-offender rules in the country. It would go well beyond the first Jessica's Law passed by Florida lawmakers in the months after authorities say sex offender John Evander Couey killed Lunsford in March 2005. Couey is scheduled to stand trial in Miami in February. He has pleaded not guilty.

All signs point to the initiative easily being approved. But opponents promise lawsuits challenging some provisions as unconstitutional.

Like laws approved in other states, Prop. 83 would increase penalties, reduce good-time credits and create new categories of sex crimes. Paroles would be lengthened for certain types of criminals, such as habitual sex offenders.

Some of those provisions were part of legislation pushed by Democrats to undercut Prop. 83's momentum. Gov. Schwarzenegger signed that bill, SB 1128, last month.

But Prop. 83 would go much further, imposing broad new rules for the state's estimated 90,000 registered sex offenders, almost 7,500 of whom live in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Felony offenders who served prison time -- the vast majority of those required to register -- would have to wear satellite-tracking devices.

In addition, the law would prohibit all registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or a park where children gather, effectively excluding a Connecticut-sized piece of the state.

At least 40 percent of the Inland area, from Ontario to Palm Springs, would become off-limits. In Riverside, for example, much of the heavily populated Ramona and Magnolia Center neighborhoods would be exclusion zones -- and much of what remained outside lacks housing.

A review of more than 1,600 sex offender registrants in San Bernardino County found that 57 percent of them live within what could become restricted areas if Prop. 83 passes.

An August poll by the nonpartisan Field Institute showed three-quarters of likely voters backed the initiative, with only 11 percent opposed.

Underscoring the initiative's political potency, Schwarzenegger and his Democratic opponent in the election, Treasurer Phil Angelides, have lined up behind Prop. 83. So have the Republican and Democratic candidates for attorney general, as well as both major political parties.

There have been no television commercials or radio ads. The Yes-on-83 campaign has spent little in recent months beyond reimbursing donors who helped qualify the measure for the ballot.

"At this point we're not seeing the need to mount a million-dollar media campaign based on what's happening so far," said state Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, who helped write the initiative with his wife, Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster.

Legality Questioned

The November election probably will not be the last word on the initiative.

Opponents promise lawsuits challenging the legality of the residency restrictions.

Critics contend the initiative's exclusion zones would apply not only to future offenders and those still on parole, but also to tens of thousands of registered sex offenders whose convictions were long ago.

Forcing people to move would be an unlawful government taking of private property without compensation, opponents say.

"I think it is almost deceitful for (Prop. 83 supporters) to make the argument that it is not retroactive," said attorney Ted Cassman, a leader of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. "Had they intended this law only to apply to future convictions, they would have mentioned that."

In 2002, Iowa lawmakers passed residency restrictions for people who committed crimes against children. That law exempted offenders who had lived in their homes since the law took effect.

George Runner and other Prop. 83 supporters say it never was their intent for the initiative to be retroactive. The question might have to be settled in the courts, they acknowledge.

As for challenging any other parts of the law, initiative proponents say that past attempts to overturn major criminal justice laws, such as 1994's three-strikes, haven't succeeded.

Prop. 83 follows years of feuding between Republican lawmakers and Democrat-controlled public safety committees.

Democrats routinely killed GOP sex-offender bills because they said they were too punitive, expensive or unworkable. Republicans accused Democrats of putting public safety at risk.

Initiative Campaign

Last fall, Schwarzenegger, the Runners and other lawmakers announced a new push for a California Jessica's Law.

"It wasn't just a case of looking at Florida. It was more a case of looking at what's taken place in our Legislature," George Runner said.

Democratic leaders called the initiative bad policy that could turn certain parts of the state into dumping grounds for sex offenders. They proposed an alternative, SB 1128.

Among the bill's high-profile supporters was Erin Runnion, the mother of Samantha Runnion, an Orange County girl who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered in 2002 by a Lake Elsinore man.

Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, has traveled the country to lobby for tougher sex-offender penalties. He supports Prop. 83.

"The idea was to make it very tough and make it very hard on sex offenders," Lunsford said in a recent interview. "It was basically designed to make their lives as miserable as we can because they've made our lives miserable."

Carrying out SB 1128 would cost the state an estimated $200 million a year. The Legislature's non-partisan fiscal analyst estimates that Prop. 83 would cost another $200 million annually.

If Jessica's Law passes, it would be left up to local officials to enforce its provisions. Both San Bernardino and Riverside counties already have created committees to carry out the law.

Some Inland officials have called for passing ordinances to augment Jessica's Law, putting more areas off-limits to sex offenders such as around bus stops and libraries.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department already has started planning its response if Prop. 83 passes, a spokeswoman said.

"The main goal will be to make sure everybody is in compliance," spokesman Arden Wiltshire said.

"It was basically designed to make their lives as miserable as we can because they've made our lives miserable": Sounds like Mark Lunsford, and a whole lot of Californians, want to add new punishments after the punishment supposedly ended.

As this blog has noted before, the end result will be massively higher non-compliance with the registration law, the knowledge by those in non-compliance that they are on the "outs" with society, and thus a greatly increased recidivism rate, not only for sex offenses but for many other offenses (US Dept. of Justice Statistics show that unlike all other offenders, sex offenders who "re-offend" have a significant tendency to commit other kinds of crimes).