The new law requires that government documents be written in "plain language," defined as "writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience."
Put simply, you have to be able to understand it.
The measure moved through the bitterly divided Congress with relative ease, although close to three dozen Republican House members voted against it.
Advocates for clear writing hailed its passage.
"A government by the people and for the people should also be understood by the people," said the watchdog Web site, allgov.com.
The movement to bring clarity to complex government documents began decades ago, when a Bureau of Land Management employee named John O'Hayre wrote a book after World War II called "Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go."
In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon ordered that the "Federal Register" be written in "layman's terms."
The Clinton administration even issued monthly "No Gobbledygook Awards" to agencies that ditched the bureaucratese. Vice President Al Gore, who oversaw the effort, called plain language a civil right, and said it promoted trust in government. The effort gave birth to a government Web site that still operates, www.plainlanguage.gov.
But many agencies have been impervious to change, as anyone who has wrestled with a federal income tax form can attest.
Still, there is no guarantee the new law will do the trick. Each federal agency must designate someone to oversee its implementation, and agency heads will have to issue annual reports on compliance. But there are no penalties for agencies or bureaucrats that continue to churn out indecipherable documents.
The new law will require everything from tax returns to applications for Veterans Administration benefits to be written in simple, easy-to-understand language.
Consider this advisory from the Department of Health and Human Services: "The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a half hour or more of moderate physical activity on most days, preferably every day. The activity can include brisk walking, calisthenics, home care, gardening, moderate sports exercise, and dancing."
It already has been changed to this: "Do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week."
And a fishing directive that said, "After notification of NMFS, this final rule requires all CA/OR DGN vessel operators to have attended one Skipper Education Workshop after all workshops have been convened by NMFS in September," has been changed to, "Vessel operators must attend a skipper education workshop before commencing fishing."
Ironically, the legislation mandating plain language could have used more plain language. Consider this passage: "The budgetary effects of this Act, for the purpose of complying with the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010, shall be determined by reference to the latest statement titled 'Budgetary Effects of PAYGO Legislation' for this Act, submitted for printing in the Congressional Record by the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, provided that such statement has been submitted prior to the vote on passage."
Still, the sponsor, Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, hailed the bill's passage.
"Writing documents in plain language will increase government accountability and will save Americans time and money," Braley said in a prepared statement.
The Veterans Administration recently used plain language in revising a letter asking beneficiaries to update contact information. The effort saved the VA $8 million in follow-up costs, Braley said.
McClendon said she didn't even know her daughter was appearing on the show. She said the show flew her daughter to New York City and provided lodging without her consent. When McClendon couldn't find her daughter, she filed a missing person's report.
McClendon said she was harmed because the show was watched by "sexual deviants, perverts and pedophiles."
She is suing Banks and Warner Brothers Entertainment to block re-runs of the episode and for $3 million.
[name withheld] wanted to stay at West Kimberly Park, but there was no room.
A two-time child sex offender who recently served six years for third-degree sex abuse and lascivious acts with a child, [name withheld] moved from Davenport to rural Muscatine, Iowa, because he couldn’t find a place to live in Scott County.
“You never know when they’ll tell you to up and move, because you’re not compliant,” he said of changes in Iowa sex offender laws that have kept him on the move. “That’ll mess with your job — if you can find one.”
[name withheld] hates being labeled by the registry and resents the effects of it, but Scott County sheriff’s deputy Peter Bawden confirmed [name withheld] stuck to the rules.
“He followed his parole and probation to a T,” he said. “He had to go all the way to Muscatine to find a compliant place to live.”
[name withheld] said he got to know many other sex offenders in prison. In some cases, he said, it is best for the state to keep track of them. In his case, he said, serving his sentence should have been enough, and the permanent sex offender label makes it nearly impossible to make a living and find a home.
“It’s been hard, because you don’t get another chance,” he said. “I keep pushing myself forward, pushing forward. I know I made bad choices. I know I made my mistakes. I’m taking responsibility for it.”
He also has made changes in his life that are designed to protect him — and others — from himself.
“I’m 47 years old, fooling around with children under 13,” he said. “That was wrong.”
He no longer allows himself to date women who have children, and he does not go near his grandchildren. It is his way, along with complying with all rules of the registry, of protecting the public.
“There’s a leash on us all,” he said of sex-offender rules. “It’s permanent. I think they should take that label off your back.”
Besides, he said, people can change.
“Peoples can be helped,” he said. “Some of those guys really, really, really need to be in the psychiatric hospital. I think God should just take some of them.”
He also was a childhood victim of sex abuse.
“I was molested, too, but that’s not why I done what I done,” he said. “Some of those guys are doing it because it was done to them. Some guys do it just to do it. I can’t get inside their brains.”
The same home address has been given to the Scott County Sheriff’s Department this year by 18 registered sex offenders.
West Kimberly Park, is one of the few rental places in the county that is at least 2,000 feet from any school or day care, which means it complies with state law as an eligible place for certain sex offenders to live.
The trailer park owner could prohibit sex offenders from renting there, but he does not.
[name withheld], the park owner, declined to be interviewed for this story, saying, “I don’t want to get involved in anything like that.”
At one point this summer, 12 sex offenders were living at West Kimberly Park at the same time.
“It’s like a modern-day leper colony,” said sheriff’s detective Peter Bawden, who keeps track of the 300-plus registered offenders in Scott County.
West Kimberly Park, formerly Brown’s Trailer Park, has about 40 mobile-home lots, and several of the residences are occupied by children.
“Some sex offenders do have children of their own,” Bawden pointed out. “There’s nothing in the law that prohibits them from being around their children. We have several sex offenders who are parents.”
And what about the children living at the park whose parents are not sex offenders and may not be aware that so many of their neighbors are?
“There is no way for me to know when someone who is not a sex offender comes and goes from there,” Bawden said. “There’s probably a waiting list for sex offenders out there.”
A female park tenant said she was made aware through word of mouth the number of sex offenders living there. A woman who lives in a nearby neighborhood said she learned of the makeup of the park by searching Iowa’s Sex Offender Registry.
Both women declined to be quoted by name, saying they are fearful of speaking critically of neighbors with a criminal history.
But the woman who lives on the outskirts of the park said her young daughter never is allowed outside the house alone because she and her husband are fearful of what could happen to her.
Experts who study public-safety measures geared toward sex offenders say residency restrictions like Iowa’s 2,000-foot rule are among the laws that don’t work. Critics do not quarrel with efforts to keep track of offenders but say zoning laws are not only ineffective but may actually increase public risk.
In situations like the one at West Kimberly Park, some say, having as many as a dozen sex offenders living in one small area can be dangerous to neighbors and to offenders who are trying to stay clean.
Learning as they go
Jill Levenson, an associate professor of psychology and human services at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., is regarded an expert in sexual violence and concluded in a nine-page paper on residency restrictions that Iowa is among the states that should consider changes.
Told of the sex-offender cluster at West Kimberly Park, Levenson replied, “We shouldn’t be surprised this becomes a consequence. Residency requirements really don’t reflect anything we know about sex offenses and sex offenders.”
In her report, which often refers to Iowa law, Levenson said 2,000-foot rules and other restrictions may have made sense at first. In practice, however, the good intentions of protective measures may actually be backfiring.
“Decreasing access to potential victims seems, intuitively, to be a reasonable strategy for preventing sex crimes,” she wrote. “However, there is no evidence that housing restrictions achieve this goal.”
The law was flawed from the beginning, she said, citing three “myths” about sex crimes.
-- The first is that all sex offenders will re-offend: “In fact, several large studies by both the U.S. and Canadian governments have found that sex offense recidivism rates are much lower than commonly believed.”
True offense rates are difficult to count, however, because so many sex crimes are not reported. But Levenson said all crimes are underreported, adding, “The only crime reported 100 percent of the time is bank robbery.”
-- The second myth is that sex offenders cannot benefit from treatment. In fact, researchers have found a relationship between offenders who successfully complete treatment programs and a decline in subsequent offenses.
-- A third myth thrives today and resulted from the “panic and urgency” created by a few high-profile child abduction/murder cases, Levenson said.
“In reality, such cases are extremely rare,” she wrote. “A study reviewing sex crimes as reported to police revealed that 93 percent of child sexual abuse victims knew their abuser.”
Removing sex offenders from areas where children congregate is not proving to spare victims, Levenson said.
“Offenders do not molest children because they live by a school,” she said.
The unintended results of residency restrictions, such as the “cluster” at West Kimberly Park, may be putting kids in peril, she said.
“The disproportionate number of sex offenders in one place produces an inequitable level of risk in that area,” she said. “Being around a bunch of unsupervised children in a trailer park can be more dangerous for an offender than living with family in a supportive environment.”
Start over or salvage some?
While pressure increases to reconsider some sex offender laws, portions of the statutes are working as they should, according to some who work in law enforcement.
When a child is reported missing, for instance, one of the first weapons police pull from their arsenal is the sex offender registry. Viewed in map form, the data instantly gives police (and anyone else) a geographic relationship between a victim and those who might have use for a victim. - This may help root out ex-sex offenders are the potential suspect, but studies show that most victims are sexually abused by family members, or close friends, or those not on a registry.
As Levenson pointed out, those cases are rare. Much more common is the need for parents to keep tabs on neighbors, especially since most sex crimes are committed by offenders who know their victims.
As the deputy in charge of Scott County residents on Iowa’s Sex Offender Registry, Bawden has an appreciation for its potential as a public-safety measure.
“I’m a firm believer that keeping kids safe is a parent’s main role, main objective,” he said. “The registry is a tool that allows parents to check on a person. It does help keep children safe, allowing parents, teachers and day care operators to be aware of people with this kind of history.” - This article is talking about residency restrictions, not the registry, but you did good at attempting to change the subject and try to justify the residency law.
Scott County Attorney Mike Walton agreed, saying the sex offender registry “is a good thing, and I don’t think anyone disputes that.”
What Walton and other members of the Iowa County Attorney Association have pushed for is a repeal of the 2,000-foot rule, based on the same discoveries cited by Levenson.
“The problem is it (residency restrictions) doesn’t address the reality of child sex abuse, which is that an overwhelming majority of the offenders are relatives or friends of the family,” he said Thursday. “It drains resources away from investigation and prevention and into tracking, measuring and putting pins in a map."
“The other problem is that it creates clusters like this situation (at West Kimberly Park).”
The trailer park is not the only place in Scott County where offenders can live, but many of the rentable properties outside the 2,000-foot rule do not accept offenders.
“At 4847, they are OK renting to persons with that record,” Bawden said. “It’s entirely up to the property owner — as long as the address complies.”
Scott County Sheriff Dennis Conard remembers when the sex offender registry and residency requirements were enacted by the Iowa Legislature.
In the beginning, there were high hopes that the measures would advance the cause of public safety. But the laws are imperfect, he said.
“The way these laws came about is law enforcement went to the legislature, along with county prosecutors, and asked for change,” the sheriff said. “I believe it’s time again for law enforcement to go back to the legislature.”
The resistance by some lawmakers to make changes, he said, comes largely from current economic conditions. Iowa cannot afford to spend more money treating, classifying, housing and tracking one group of criminals, he said.
“Until more resources become available, sex offenders are going to have to have restrictions and burdens placed on them,” Conard said. “Public safety has to come first.” - But again, most studies out there, show that these residency restrictions do NOTHING to make people safe. So again, you are basing your opinion on bogus facts!
Walton said the Iowa County Attorney Association “pushed” in 2006 for the repeal of the 2,000-foot rule, but the matter is “too political” to gain ground. - And that is the problem. The politicians do not have the balls to defend the constitution, which they took an oath to do, nor peoples rights, which sex offenders have rights as well, regardless if you like it or not.
He agreed with many of those who work most closely with sex offenders and say restrictions are not working and public safety would benefit from change.
Asked whether residents of Scott County would be safer if the 12 sex offenders living at West Kimberly Park were spread out in neighborhoods closer to the city center, Scott County probation and parole officer Diana Danielson said, “It would be better if that happened, yes."
“They would be closer to where they need to be — work, probation and parole, treatment programs, transportation. How much harder can we make it? We’re increasing their risk of recidivism, and that’s what we don’t want.”
By isolating offenders in rural locations with little or no access to jobs and social services, Danielson said, the “stressors” that lead to recidivism are on the rise.
As sex-offender laws have changed in Iowa, the desire to monitor the actions of the most dangerous offenders has remained the bottom line.
“It used to be that anyone convicted of a sex crime against a minor had to comply with the residency restrictions,” said Ross Loder, legislative liaison for the Iowa Department of Public Health. “We went from 4,300 to 1,200 (offenders who have to comply with the restrictions) when the law changed in 2009 to include only those who commit the most serious crimes against children." - And that is against the constitutions ex post facto clause.
“Instead of just restricting where a person sleeps, a bigger concern was where they go when they’re awake. There was strong legislative will to restrict residency among those committing the most serious sex crimes — a more tailored approach.”
As sex offender laws get more use, and the people charged with enforcing them evaluate their effectiveness, more changes seem likely.
“I don’t know that there is any perfect solution,” Loder said. “There is ongoing, very important policy discussion. We’re all speaking the same language now.”