By Diane Turbyfill
With the number of sex offenders in Gaston County at 319 and growing, some in the law enforcement and social services communities are wondering if the state has made it too easy to land on the dreaded list.
Gaston County is the eighth-largest county in the state based on population, but it ranks sixth in the number of sex offenders.
Is North Carolina getting better at sniffing out and penalizing these deviants or are the requirements for enrollment on the list getting too broad?
Consensual acts can land a person on the sex offender registry, according to Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell.
If a 19-year-old man engages in a consensual sex act with a 14-year-old, that man could find himself on the sex offender registry for 10 years, said Bell.
“We’re finding these men who are now 27- and 28-year-old men, married with children and they’re on the registry,” Bell said.
- And their lives are ruined as well.
The sex offender registry was created to identify sexual predators.
The criteria to become a registered sex offender was once more restrictive than it is today, said Bell.
Violent crimes such as rape can certainly earn lifetime placement on the registry. People convicted of taking indecent liberties with a child also get added to the list, sometimes with the opportunity for review after 10 years.
But offenses that involve no physical contact also earn people a spot on the registry. Committing acts of secret peeping and indecent exposure can lead to enrollment.
While these offenses may not seem like a physical threat, they can develop into violent behavior, according to Nancy Newman, director of Assault & Victimization, Intervention & Deterrence.
“These sexual crimes escalate,” said Newman. “They are precursors to physical and sexual abuse.”
- Once again, another person putting everyone into one group. For some, yes they do escalate, but not for all.
Both Newman and Bell recognize the need for the Sex Offender Registry, but both also notice issues with the program.
“The Legislature has broadened the definition of sex offender to where it is no longer just predators,” said Bell. “We need to protect society from predators, but we’ve put so many people on this list that the predators can get hidden in the crowd.”
For especially heinous sexual crimes a person can get labeled a sexual predator. This process can be sordid and difficult, requiring evaluations from psychologists and hearings in court, said Bell.
Sexual predators often can be subjected to satellite monitoring. GPS technology is worn around an offender’s ankle, similar to ankle bracelets worn by people on house arrest.
A monitoring company keeps an eye on the tracking device that will send in an alert if the offender breaks the rules.
- But it won't send an alert if they are committing another crime, only if they go where they are not suppose to.
Sex offenders must adhere to a laundry list of rules – steering clear of schools, day cares and sometime’s a particular person’s home.
“It’s a great supervision tool. It aids the officer and it helps the offender to correct,” said Hannah Rowland with the North Carolina Department of Correction.
- So tell me, how is an online shaming list a good supervision tool? You cannot supervise anyone by looking at a registry, only by going to their homes. It's a punishment tool, why don't you call it what it is?
The waterproof device includes a SIM card and will also alert the monitoring company if the unit is tampered with.
The program is meant to protect society and correct deviant behavior, said Rowland.
“You want them to be in treatment and you want them to get the help to modify their behavior and to become productive citizens,” Rowland said.
- But when you pass laws forcing them onto an online shaming hit-list, and to live out in the woods in tents, or in cars, cannot find a home or job, then how are you helping them become "productive" members of society?
If an offender violates the conditions, someone with the monitoring company will contact the individual to make sure the equipment is not malfunctioning. An officer will be notified if the offender overstepped his or her bounds.
Sex offenders deserve to be punished just like any other criminal, but the regulations of the Sex Offender Registry may need a little fine tuning, according to Bell.
- For one, it needs to be taken offline and used by police, to stop vigilantism, which does occur, and the residency restrictions need to be deleted all together. There are studies out there that show the registry or residency restrictions do nothing to prevent crime or protect people, if you'd look.
“The original purpose was to protect us from predators and I think that they’ve made the whole process so confusing and so broad that it’s lost its purpose,” said Bell.