Saturday, August 25, 2007

Crime figures show sex offender laws don’t work

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Every state has laws intending to protect children from repeat offenders such as Gorczyca, but crime figures show those laws just aren’t working. What’s more, residence laws in some states, which push offenders out of their homes, put children at greater risk since the offenders disappear from police sight.

Since 1996, all states have required sex offenders to register their addresses with local police. That’s when “Megan’s Law” was enacted, after a girl in New Jersey was snatched, raped and murdered by a neighbor no one knew had committed sexual attacks on two young children. The Adam Walsh Act of 2006 updates those registration guidelines nationwide, ranking offenders by severity of their crimes.

More than half the states also impose residence restrictions through state law or local ordinance designed to deliver predators from temptation.

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Levy and others who’ve drafted similar laws in statehouses and town halls nationwide say they only want to keep predators as far from children as possible.

Problem is, residency laws don’t deliver. Crime numbers in states that have such bans don’t reflect any clear-cut decrease in sex offenses or crimes against children after the laws are enacted. Most molestations are tracked back to perpetrators children already know and trust, with precious few resulting from “stranger danger.” And the residence restrictions for sex offenders are proving expensive, costing taxpayers in lawsuits, enforcement and drops in property value.

Nor do strict residence laws that relegate offenders to society’s fringes hold sex offender numbers down, since the count keeps growing. And the laws don’t determine where sex offenders will settle once released from prison, despite their supporters’ claims that absent residence laws, a state or town becomes a pedophiliac haven.

Alaska leads all 50 states in sex offenders per capita. The northern state of 670,000 has 630 offenders per 100,000 residents, and no residence laws.

But neither does Pennsylvania, at the bottom of that same list with 62 offenders per 100,000 residents -- about a 10th of Alaska’s rate.

Kansas also has no residence law for sex offenders and settles near the middle of the list. The state averages 144 sex offenders per 100,000 residents, which places Kansas 29th overall.

Some states have begun debating the laws’ effectiveness.

Prosecutors in Iowa called last year for its 2,000-foot law to be repealed, saying the stricter the ban, the more offenders end up shirking the registry outright and disappearing once released from prison.

“It’s a form of banishment,” said Corey Rayburn Yung, a professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago who runs the blog Sex Crimes (http://sexcrimes.typepad.com). “You’ll find in Iowa a motel where all sex offenders live. We’re starting to get ghettoization, which is very new in America. We don’t have these sorts of ghettos of criminalization that way. The United States has a long history of resisting banishment.”

Yet other legislators continue to draw ever-widening circles around parks, schools, playgrounds - even bus stops - where convicted offenders may not live and sometimes may not loiter.

In June, Nevada became one of the latest states to push through a law that bars the most dangerous offenders from entering a safety zone around kid hangouts: schools, daycares and video arcades.

In Florida, where a 1,000-foot state rule bars pedophiles from schools and parks, many counties and municipalities widened the circle to 2,500 feet. In Miami, that left only a swath of land for five offenders under a bridge, where they lived with state approval.

And Marlborough, Mass., enacted its law in June - finalized as a 1,000-foot loop around schools, parks and daycares where sex offenders can’t live, plus a 500-foot “safety zone” where they can’t loiter.

But a Colorado study found that molesters who reoffended didn’t live any closer to schools or childcares than those who didn’t abuse again. Sex offenders in that state can live wherever they choose.

“Placing restrictions on the location of … supervised sex offender residences may not deter the sex offender from reoffending and should not be considered as a method to control sexual offending recidivism,” the study stated.

Random stranger attacks on children grab headlines but account for only about 10 percent of sexual assaults on kids, according to the Department of Justice.

Only about 100 of 60,000 annual sex assault reports involve abduction by a stranger.

Most state laws don’t distinguish between serial rapists and repentant mooners. Very few states - including Massachusetts - allow offenders a chance to prove they’re no longer a risk.

Illinois saw a jump from 1,187 sexual offenses against children in 1999, the year before its residence laws began, to 1,871 offenses in 2005, the most recent year the state police released statistics.

Iowa made 279 sex crime arrests the year before it began restricting where sex offenders could live, but 322 in 2005.

So the state, with prosecutors’ approval, is backtracking.

“(We) believe that the 2,000 foot residency restrictions … do not provide the protection that was originally intended,” the leading state prosecutors association (www.icaa.org) said in 2006.

“We do know that people who have offended and have undergone good treatment, have jobs, have stable living situations and have family and other support will not reoffend,” said Corwin Ritchie, the organization’s head. “And that’s why we don’t want them living under bridges, in motels with dozens of other sex offenders, without jobs, without treatment and all those other things we know are effective in preventing recidivism.”

To challenge residence bans as unconstitutional banishment and ongoing punishment, offenders have sued. Suits dragged on in Iowa and Ohio, and continue in Georgia and Missouri. Those ruled on have deemed any retroactive law unconstitutional.

Residence laws end up backfiring because they push sex offenders away from support, said Jill S. Levenson, a professor who’s studied sex offender behavior.

Offenders often search for victims far from their hometowns so they are less likely to be recognized, Levenson wrote.

Housing restrictions increase isolation in sex offenders and add to financial and emotional problems, according to a study Levenson published in 2005. Half the offenders questioned said they had to move, and more than 40 percent couldn’t live with family anymore - and that stress makes it harder to resist temptation, Levenson concluded.

But the laws are popular among voters and politically tricky to oppose.

Kansas shot down a residence ban and prohibited local laws, citing Iowa’s troubles. After Iowa enacted its residence law, police lost track of 400 offenders who gave fake addresses or moved without telling police, compared with 140 the year before.

As states sign on to the federal Adam Walsh Act of 2006 (they have until July 2009 to do so or lose federal money), sex offenders nationwide will be ranked according to the same criteria, and then told to register for 15 or 25 years, or for life, depending on the severity of their crimes.

Meanwhile, in 12 states, offenders must register for life, no matter how trivial the crime. In other states, offenders who insist they pose no danger to society - those caught having sex with teens a few years younger - say their years of registration are solely for punishment.

The mother of a Texas teen, who ended up convicted of sexual assault after a Romeo-and-Juliet romance soured, can’t believe her son is classed alongside dangerous rapists.

“The effects of the lifetime sex offender status will never end,“ she said. “Did my son break the law? Certainly. Should he be punished? Definitely. But should his consequences be the same as those for a violent, forced rape or an offense against a young child? Is using a lifetime of resources to monitor someone like this a sensible use of taxpayer money?”

Even a Massachusetts mother whose three children were repeatedly molested by a trusted family friend, said she’d rather see money spent on housing or treating dangerous offenders than monitoring lesser criminals who never touched a child.

“Where are they going to live?” asked the mother of three who wanted to be known only as “Jane.”

“None of us wants them here. I don’t want them living next to me. No, we don’t want them near daycares and schools, but it doesn’t prevent them from going to a mall,” she said of laws passed in towns near hers.

“You know, we somehow feel comfortable, but we don’t really know where they are. … It’s a false sense of security.”

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