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"Ineffective” and “unconstitutional" are some of the unflattering terms two First Amendment watchdog groups use to describe a new crop of congressional bills that aim to protect children on the Internet. To make sure librarians, educators, parents, and policy wonks know just how "flawed" they are, the two groups recently posted a detailed online report (PDF) of the proposed legislation.
A total of 11 Senate and 23 House bills have been filed in the 110th Congress addressing the online issues of child predators, obscenity, pornography, and material deemed "harmful to minors." And the sheer number is disturbing, say two Washington, DC-based nonprofit groups, the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) and the Progress & Freedom Foundation.
"This Congress has seen an explosion of bills aimed at child safety or proposing regulation of Internet content," says John Morris, CDT's senior counsel and study co-author. "Although some of the bills are good, others raise very serious policy and constitutional concerns.
The report says (PDF) that two blue-ribbon panels created by Congress to explore ways to best protect kids online concluded that the most effective way was to “combine education with the use of filtering and other technology tools to empower parents to decide what content their children should access." Yet the plethora of proposed legislation this session makes it clear that lawmakers are ignoring that advice.
The Kids Act, for example, proposes a sex offender email registry. Though the intention is positive, the bill, sponsored by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and John McCain (R-AZ) would "likely reduce the ability of blogging and social networking sites to offer their services for free," CDT says. The House considered a similar path and abandoned the email registry proposal because of the privacy issues it raises.
"At the end of the day, this bill will not actually do much to protect kids from anyone intent on harming them, and it will have a negative impact on the free availability of outlets for lawful speech online," the CDT says.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
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UXBRIDGE (UPI) -- The latest Massachusetts state lottery winner also happens to be a 56-year-old Level 3 sex offender.
Daniel Snay of Uxbridge was convicted six times of indecent assault and battery in the 1970s and 1980s, the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette reported Sunday.
Snay bought a $20 scratch ticket Jan. 16 and won $10 million.
"I'm flabbergasted," said Connecticut State Police Lt. Paul Vance, who said Snay could face charges because he failed to verify his address or notify officials when he moved to Massachusetts in 2004.
Snay's lawyer, Joseph M. Fabbricotti, said the man is "quiet" and plans to use the bulk of his winnings to help his five grown children. Snay is classified as a Level 3 sex offender, which is considered the most dangerous, on the state's Sex Offender Registry Board.
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MILWAUKEE (AP) - A man who served almost a year in prison for a crime he didn't commit has been awarded the maximum the state of Wisconsin can pay him: $5,000 plus legal fees.
- This is insane! What was the mans yearly salary? They should at least award him that, plus some extra for the pain and suffering of going through all the trouble.
The lawyer of 61-year-old David Sanders hopes the case will reopen debate about the compensation limit. A decades-old law limits it to $5,000 per year behind bars plus attorney costs.
Sanders is from Louisville, Kentucky. He was convicted in 2006 on a child-molestation charge when he was a Catholic educator in Milwaukee.
He was sentenced to 15 years, but he was freed after eight months when another man confessed.
Yesterday the State Claims Board agreed to pay Sanders $5,000 plus $18,240 in legal fees.
His lawyer says Sanders is grateful for the money but he should be entitled to more.
NY - Where can sex offenders live? - Fifteen N.Y. counties have enacted residency restrictions; Chemung may do the same.
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Margaret Allen was shocked when she found out a convicted Level 3 sex offender was living across the street in her quiet Breesport neighborhood.
- Ok, they are a level 3 sex offender, but what did they do? Just because they are a sex offender doesn't mean it involved a child!
That shock turned to frustration when she learned he was well within his rights to be there.
Allen, who has young grandchildren, is among several residents pushing Chemung County to adopt measures to keep neighborhoods safe from sex offenders.
But many law enforcement officials and others say tougher restrictions on sex offenders don't work, and in many cases are unconstitutional.
That leaves people such as Allen wondering where they can turn.
"Once they serve the time and they are off probation, there is no restriction. We have no guarantee that person is rehabilitated," Allen said.
- And you don't know if a murderer or anybody else is rehabilitated either, never will. This has been the case since the dawn of time. We cannot predict the future. They've done the time given to them, now leave them alone...
"We think the county and state owe it to the taxpayers to have some system in place where we are protected. Right now (offenders) have more rights than we do. They are protected by law. What protection is there for our children?"
- No matter what they do, you still won't be protected. They could lock up every single one right this minute, but more will follow. Why do you think the registry grows on a daily basis??? You need to protect your own children, stop letting the government tell you when and what you can or cannot do. When they wipe out ALL your rights, since you cannot protect yourself or your family, then they will own and control you...
Communities take a stand
New York's Sex Offender Registration Act requires anyone convicted of a sex crime to be listed on a statewide registry.
The law does not impose any restrictions on residency, although such limits can be placed on convicted sex offenders who are on parole or probation.
Once the sentence is served, however, those restrictions are lifted.
- That is NOT true!!! More fear-mongering BS! Why don't you visit the New York State Assembly and find out the facts?
Counties or individual municipalities can adopt their own restrictions, although in some communities, those steps have been challenged in court.
The task Chemung County faces is crafting legislation that balances the concerns of residents with the rights of convicted sex offenders, County Executive Tom Santulli said.
"Part of the fear out there is laws become so restrictive that you drive these individuals underground. Some people don't want these people living anywhere. Obviously that's not an option," Santulli said.
"There are some constitutionality issues. There are rights out there that everybody has in this country. There's nothing worse than enacting something unconstitutional."
- And yet these very laws are just that! That is why they are constantly being fought in court!
There are 167 registered sex offenders of all levels in Chemung County, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
In Seneca County, which has about half as many offenders, county officials responded to citizen concerns by adopting strict residency guidelines in late 2006.
Under Seneca County's law, convicted Level 2 or Level 3 sex offenders -- those deemed by a court to pose the most serious threats -- may not live within 500 feet of any land used as a camp, daycare center, park, playground or school.
The law does provide some exceptions for people who owned homes prior to its passage, among others.
It may be too early to fairly judge how well the law is working, but so far, it has not created any problems, Seneca County Attorney Frank Fisher said.
- Well, you need to come back from wonderland and look around the rest of the country. There is nothing but problems with these laws.
"I'm not aware of any litigation up to this point. Similar legislation has been upheld in other jurisdictions," Fisher said.
"We're not exactly pioneers here. This is something you are seeing coming up in a lot of areas in response to what you've seen so much of.
"Some people may say it's merely a symbolic gesture, but I think it served a purpose and I think it sends a message too," he said.
Fifteen New York counties have some sort of residency restriction laws for convicted sex offenders.
Chemung County should certainly at least look at the feasibility of adopting similar legislation locally, said Ralph Marino, superintendent of the Horseheads Central School District.
Schools are obviously concerned about the location of sex offenders, Marino said.
"We would want to do anything to support any law to protect children that's legally possible. If it's being done somewhere else, we should try to do that in my community to protect children," Marino said.
- How will anything about these laws protect children from some predator who is intent on committing another crime? IT WON'T!!
"I think we need to make sure our children are protected to the extent that's legally possible."
Dawn Watson of Breesport would like to see some changes as well, but she isn't sure yet what steps the county should take.
"I wish there was more of a warning sign, more accessibility to find out who is living next to you," Watson said.
- Create a CRIMINAL database with ALL criminals on it, not just sex offenders. Then we'd all know who lives around us.
"If they had more information on how you could access the computer to see who is on there, that way we could be informed. A lot of people don't know how to go on to the computer for that kind of information."
Sex offender registries and residency laws may be well-intentioned, but they often have the opposite effect, according to the Rev. David Hess, a Rochester-area minister.
Hess is also the New York State Representative of SOhopeful International, a group that describes its mission as advocating for effective sex offender laws based on fact, rather than myth and hysteria.
Laws that are too restrictive can cause more harm than good, Hess said.
"Do you want to know where sex offenders are or do you not? It's one or the other," he said.
"If former offenders are unable to find a place to live, they are going to drop out of sight. You'll have them living in your neighborhood and you won't know where they live."
In addition, studies done by the U.S. Justice Department prove that most sex offender laws are aimed at the wrong people, said Tom Madison, president of SO Clear Media Productions, an Oregon-based organization that advocates for fact-based laws and fair treatment of low-level former offenders.
Madison, himself a former sex offender who was sentenced to probation for a minor offense, said sex offender laws often punish one-time offenders, rather than protect communities from the most dangerous predators.
"We are tripping over ourselves to protect a community with a very blurred definition of what sex offenders are," Madison said.
"Ninety-five percent of all new crimes will be committed by people not on any sex offense registry anyway. Sex offending occurs within the family or within the realm of association of those who have access to your children. It's not likely to be someone who lives down the street," he said.
"There is a minority 5 percent who are a problem, who do live a lifestyle where offending against children is in their psychological makeup," he said.
"Those are the ones we need to watch. For those who are not, let them get on with their lives."
Those sorts of concerns are what prompted Schuyler County to reconsider passage of its own residency law.
Schuyler County is looking at legislation modeled after the Seneca County law, but county legislature Chairman Thomas Gifford and others started questioning the merits of the proposal.
"The state already has rules and regulations, and our probation department and sheriff knows who these people are," Gifford said.
"So I look at it as, what we're being asked to pass is kind of overkill."
Looking for a better way
Of the 167 registered sex offenders in Chemung County, the sheriff's office is responsible for monitoring more than a third of them, and local police departments keep track of the rest.
Tighter residency laws could create enforcement issues, Sheriff Christopher Moss said.
"When you make up those laws, make sure they are enforceable. We have a lot more schools, a lot more parks (than Seneca County). It might be harder to enforce," Moss said.
"There's always a chance they will go underground or leave the area and don't report. Nobody wants a sex offender in their neighborhood. But you're going to push them somewhere."
David Edkin of Elmira believes some proposals are too punitive, but he also understands people's concerns about sex offenders.
"Some of these guys who did things 20 years ago were put on the list. And they are established in the community, and have family now," Edkin said.
"I think if they've served their time and got treatment, they don't deserve to be restricted. Also I have kids. And I live by a school. I see it from both sides. If they are high risk, I can see it."
Many people believe if any restrictions are placed on offenders who have completed their sentences, it should be done statewide, not piecemeal.
The state Senate has already attempted to do that, but the Assembly hasn't followed suit, said Sen. George H. Winner Jr., R-Elmira.
"Overall, this should be done on a statewide basis, to provide some continuity," Winner said.
"We should not create safe havens for sex offenders who have the ability to roam from one county to another."
Beth Ann Hyde is one of the founders of Breesport Neighborhood Watch, and she was initially for residency restrictions.
But after hearing of some of the potential pitfalls from county officials, Hyde said she still wants to see the county address the issue.
She just doesn't know what the right answer is.
"It's a very complex situation that has to be looked at very closely. A lot of people will be affected by this," Hyde said.
"I want my family to be safe. But if this law is going to make me less safe, I would rather see something else happen, maybe even at a state level across the board," she said.
"I think that there needs to be more there, maybe even a conditional extended supervision for sex offenders," she said.
"So I'm not saying I don't want to see this happen. Is this going to create more (problems) than it will solve? I don't know the answer."