Monday, February 2, 2009

Misguided Measures - New Sex Offender Laws May Cause Bigger Problems Than They Prevent

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Old, but still relevant.



Megan Kanka, Polly Klaas, Jessica Lunsford -- the names break your heart at their very mention. All were victims of child sex predators.

But laws passed in their names may be making matters worse.
Across the nation, communities and legislators are enacting a wide variety of new laws to fight back against sex offenders. Some communities have set residency restrictions on sex offenders, others require GPS monitoring, and in Ohio there's a proposal that would require registered sex offenders to put bright green license plates on their vehicles.

But a growing chorus of experts said that many laws targeting sex offenders have backfired. And the consequences could be far-reaching.

"In 2005, we had a series of very high-profile, very violent brutal sex crimes against children," said Jill Levenson, a professor of human services at Lynn University in Florida. "And that really sparked a nationwide panic."

'Cluster' Communities of Sex Offenders

Residency restriction laws are among the most common new legislative efforts to address community concerns. Many states have enacted laws that bar offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day care center. In California, the required distance is a quarter mile.

But the not-in-my-backyard mentality that has understandably prompted much of this legislation may be producing the opposite effect.

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Sheriff Don Zeller said new residency restrictions are forcing offenders into rural parts of the county where they are far harder to keep track of -- or worse, forcing them underground, where they can be lost track of completely.

"We're finding that it's almost impossible to keep track of individuals we have registered in the county," Zeller told ABC News' Law & Justice Unit. "Five years ago, we knew where about 95 percent of those individuals were. Now we're lucky if we know where 50, 55 percent of them are."

And paradoxically, Zeller said, the new restrictions are also creating creepy sex offender "clusters" -- like the Ced-Rel Motel in Lynn County, where more than two dozen sex offenders lived at one time.

"What if some individual comes in there with a family and decides that they're going to stay there overnight, not knowing that 26 sex offenders are living there? And what happens if then they expose their family because most families will send their kids down to get pop or ice and, unbeknown to them, there are 26 sex offenders living in that same complex?" Zeller said.

Polly Boland knows how that feels. Her family's farm sits beside a sex offender cluster.

"We told our kids that if anything peculiar is going on, to go back to the house," she said. "They're really aware of it. Our dog Henry is a good watchdog. … We don't feel unsafe, we wish they didn't live there," Boland said. "Other neighbors have thought about leaving, [but] we farm, and that's not something we can do."

On the Run

Worse still for Zeller are offenders who are driven underground by the sometimes draconian residency restrictions in some cities. Overlapping exclusion zones keep sex offenders from finding residence in most of downtown Tulsa, Okla., and Atlanta.

ABC News found _____, a 23-year-old registered sex offender, living in an EconoLodge hotel room in Iowa with three other offenders.

"It's a place to lay down and know that I'm out of the cold," he said. "I know that the sheriff's department knows that I'm off the street, and they don't have to worry about me roaming the streets looking for a place to stay."

But they are about to. _____ said he can no longer afford the room, and that he'll have to move out soon. Where to, he doesn't yet know. He can't find a job because of his offender status.

"What it's done is driven people to -- rather than come in and register and comply with the law -- there's no way they can find housing, so it forces them to be on the run or lie about where they are at," Zeller said. "So that's not creating a safe environment for the public at all."

Paul Zandbergen, in the University of South Florida's geography department, did a study in which he mapped the effects of residency restrictions in his state and found that "if you add up all the restrictions -- almost nothing is left (that people can live in) fairly quickly."

Low Recidivism Rate

One of Levenson's aims is to dispel myths about sex offenders and base new legislation on research rather than reactionary politics.

"There is no research to suggest there there really is a relationship between where sex offenders live and whether or not they'll repeat their crimes, and there also isn't any evidence to demonstrate that these laws are really effective in preventing sexual crimes," she said.

In fact, only 7 percent of sex crimes against kids are committed by strangers, according to Justice Department statistics.

Studies show that -- contrary to popular belief -- sex offenders have a lower recidivism rate than other types of criminals, re-offending in about 14 percent of cases.

"So, ironically, what happens with residency restrictions is that we end up creating exactly the types of risk factors that we know lead to higher recidivism rather than lower recidivism," Levenson said. "In other words, we know that stability, social support and employment are really important factors to help criminals maintain a productive life and not resume a life of crime, so disrupting the stability of criminal offenders is not likely to be in the best interest of public safety."

The 'Stranger Danger' Myth

Levenson said, the residency restrictions fail completely to address the 90 percent of sex offenders whose victims are children they already know.

"The myth of 'stranger danger' is the idea that … sex offenders are lurking in parks and playgrounds," she said. "And the unfortunate truth is that most children who are sexually molested are victimized by someone that they and their families know and trust -- often family members [themselves]."

Danger Close to Home

Nancy Sabin is the executive director of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, named for a Minnesota boy who was abducted at gunpoint in 1989 and never heard from again. The foundation spearheads preventive education programs aimed at protecting children from both stranger predators and sex offenders in their own communities or homes.

"Can you help me understand where all these sexual predators are coming from?" she asked rhetorically. "They're coming from our homes!

"Why do we pretend we don't know where they are?" she asked, adding that Americans "need to see ourselves as part of the solution."

Like Levenson and Zeller, Sabin is an unlikely opponent of sex offender residency restrictions.

"There's not one case in the entire U.S. where a child or adult was not assaulted because of residency restrictions -- it's one of the largest wastes of resources and false sense of security things we've done yet," she said.

Doomed to Failure?

Sheriff Zeller said he understood the intent behind residency restrictions and other enacted measures that target sex offenders. But he said we need to re-evaluate our strategies against sex offenders and come up with smarter solutions that are going to have better long-term impact on the problems.

While he said he's certainly not an advocate for sex offenders, he does fear new laws make it tougher for them to walk the line.

"We're taking their hope away," he said. "We're taking a place [to] stay and a [work]place they can become a productive part of. We are placing all kinds of restrictions on them. They are doomed to failure. … That's the problem."

KS - Kansas license rule for parolees may hurt society more than it helps

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By MARY SANCHEZ - The Kansas City Star

If you saw the words “REGISTERED OFFENDER” in bold red letters on a driver’s license, what would it tell you?

That the license holder is a sexual pervert? A meth addict? Someone who has been busted for selling crack?

At any rate, he or she could be someone you wouldn’t want to hire or rent an apartment to, right?

Such scarlet letter-like driver’s licenses are being issued in Kansas. And they are becoming more common. Parolees with a wider range of convictions are being ordered to carry them.

Viewed from one perspective, the licenses appear to be a good idea. Mark the convict and assume the branding will be an alert, keeping society safe.

But this is one public safety issue that isn’t that straightforward, which is likely news to some of the legislators who initiated it.

Determining just what the “REGISTERED OFFENDER” mark of shame conveys is increasingly difficult, as the convictions that call for such a license continue to expand, from an initial mandate for sex offenses to the inclusion of many violent crimes and now some drug offenses.

That alone makes the marked licenses a dilemma for the average person who might encounter them — say, a store clerk or bartender or prospective employer.

The default assumption would be that the person is a sexual predator. And the image conjured could be that of a person intent on harming a child. Yet as more parolees are being issued the licenses, that assumption is increasingly false.

That’s only one of the reasons those who work with parolees were alarmed when they learned of the licenses last month.

To Barry Mayer, a former major in the Kansas City Police Department and vice president of the Kansas City Crime Commission, the prominent wording on the license is one more barrier parolees will face in reintegrating into society.

The best way to ensure an ex-con will commit another crime is to limit their chances of getting a steady job and a safe place to live.

But denying a parolee those things is exactly what the licenses could encourage others to do.

Faced with the idea of renting to or hiring a “registered offender,” many people understandably would shut that door, rather than open it. The fear factor is simply too great. The catch, though, is that without a job, a convict is more likely to commit a crime again.

“It is a miserably tough balance,” said Bill Miskell, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections. “When a person can’t get a decent job or a safe place to live, then there is a greater likelihood that they will reoffend.”

Like it or not, people with past violent convictions mix with the law-abiding public every day. They need more help to become stable, not public safety efforts — no matter how well intended — that push parolees to live in the shadows, a precursor for reoffending.

Besides, records of people who have been convicted of violent and sexual crimes are accessible to the public. People can track such information when appropriate.

If only public safety was as simple as labeling every person who holds the possibility of being a threat.

The more prudent route is the tougher sell: working with parolees to keep them from reoffending and giving those who deserve it a second chance.

But instead, it seems that human, or at least legislative, nature is to create pariahs out of ever-widening groups of people.

FL - FDLE Cuts Nearly 100 Positions, More To Come

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Maybe something good will come out of this financial problem!


CENTRAL FLORIDA -- The economy may be shrinking, but crime is a growing problem in Central Florida. Nonetheless, the state is slashing the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's budget.

Almost 100 positions were just cut from the FDLE on Sunday. Positions in the drug unit and the training office have been cut. Law enforcement officials said they are concerned; FDLE has been instrumental in the fight against crime.

FDLE slashed almost $6 million from its budget and now legislators are asking the agency to reduce its budget by another 10-percent. The cuts also affect other big state agencies.

Cutting 16 fraud investigators will save FDLE almost a million dollars, but that means more work for the Department of Children and Families. FDLE cracks down on people who fraudulently collect food stamps and public aide.

When it comes to fighting street gangs and organized crime, the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigations will lose a valuable resource. Twenty-two agent positions have been eliminated and the cuts are just the tip of the iceberg with more are on the way.

The state agency has been asked to cut another 10-percent. The new proposal includes eliminating 14 field offices across the state.

One of the biggest public services on the chopping block is the sexual predator unit. If that unit is eliminated, there would be no statewide tracking system of career offenders. The public wouldn't be able to check the FDLE website to get information about a possible sex offender living in their neighborhoods and the state would be unable to keep track of where sex offenders are living.
- Sounds good to me, but I believe it's fear mongering to get more money from the tax payers.  Scare them into submitting more money!

Another unit affected could be the missing persons unit. That means the public would no longer see amber alerts, missing child or silver alerts.

Even though the cuts seem severe, a spokesperson for FDLE said they're not set in stone; it's a working proposal and the legislature has the final say.

AK - Inmate believed to have committed suicide

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ANCHORAGE - An inmate at the Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai is believed to have committed suicide.

Fifty-two-year-old _____ was found Wednesday morning. It appears he used a cord from a cleaning machine to hang himself. _____ had an inmate job at the prison as a night janitor. He was last seen alive around 1:30 a.m.

Richard Schmitz, a spokesman with the Alaska Department of Corrections, says _____ had been in Wildwood for about a year and was awaiting trial on a charge of sexually abusing a minor.

A court hearing in the case was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

KS - Johnson County inmate commits suicide

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A 37-year-old Prairie Village man committed suicide Saturday in the Olathe Detention Center, police said.

_____ was found by a deputy with a piece of cloth wrapped around his neck about 10 p.m. Saturday during a routine cell check. Efforts to save him were attempted immediately by deputies and nursing staff on duty, according to the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. He was pronounced dead at the jail.

Overland Park police arrested _____ on July 29, 2007. He was being held on 12 counts, including aggravated kidnapping, sexual exploitation of a child and aggravated battery. The crimes, according to police, occurred after one of _____’s relatives left a 14-year-old girl and a friend at _____’s house.

The girls were tied up and photographed in connection with sexually explicit conduct and were given alcohol and drugs, authorities said.

IN - Sex offfender registry director found in contempt of court

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By Keith Rhoades

Editor’s note: In 2007, Morgan County Superior Court I Judge G. Thomas Gray approved a request by the defendant to keep his real name off of court records and be referred to as “John Doe”.

The director of the Indiana Department of Corrections Sex Registry Division has been given 24 hours to comply with a court order to remove a county resident from the state’s sex offender list.

If Brent Myers, director of registration and victim services at the DOC, which is in charge of the registry, doesn’t comply, he will go to jail until he does comply, said Morgan County Superior Court I Judge G. Thomas Gray Monday during a hearing.

The judge ordered the Myers to return to court at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning. If Doe’s name is not removed from the registry, Myers will go to jail, Gray said.

Gray told the DOC’s attorney, Michael Barns, they had presented no evidence during the contempt hearing held this (Monday) morning to cause him to reverse his order of March 17, 2008. He said the law allows 30 days to appeal a court decision and since the DOC did not appeal, the judge said they had forfeited their right of appeal.

Unless a higher court intervenes, Myers will have no choice, but to remove the man known in court documents as “John Doe” or go to jail.

Doe’s attorney, Steven Litz, asked Myers, who has been in charge of the registry for three years, why he had not followed the judge’s order.

Myers said that, when he received the order, an investigation was performed by the DOC into the facts of the case. He said that after the investigation, it was determined the DOC could not comply with the order, because it contradicts state law. Myers said Doe’s case was discussed with the DOC’s attorney at the time, and at least two letters were sent to the county informing it of the decision. Neither Myers nor his attorney had copies of the letters, nor did Litz, the court, or the state.

Myers said Doe’s victim was 12 years or younger and Doe was older than 18 at the time of the offense, which under state law keeps him on the registry for life.

Litz said the law allows that someone who pleads guilty to sexual battery as a D felony could petition the court to have their name taken off the registry.

Myers said that law went into effect in 1997 and Doe’s crime occurred in 1995, so it did not fall under that specific law.

The DOC’s attorney asked Myers if he felt it would be unlawful for the DOC to remove Doe’s name. Myers said yes, it would be. Under questioning by Barns, Myers said the judge’s order put the DOC in an awkward position because the department, under the law, has no authority to remove a person from the registry.

During summation, Litz said there are ways for someone, including the government agencies, to appeal a decision they believe to unfair. In this case, other than sending two letter, of which there is no record, the DOC did nothing he said. Litz also took issue with the DOC doing its own investigation of a case. He asked the judge to take immediate steps to enforce his order.

Barns said the sex offender registry is set by law and the DOC had two choices, follow the judge’s order or follow the law. He admitted they were late in responding, but the fact remained that the DOC cannot remove Doe from the list.

After the hearing. Barns said he would discuss the matter with others at the DOC. He said they have two choices, to appeal the order or to remove Doe from the registry.

PA - Sex offender law on docket for Lower Pottsgrove meeting

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LOWER POTTSGROVE — A local sex offender ordinance could be discussed and adopted by the Board of Commissioners during tonight's meeting.

This topic — first discussed last summer — was on the agenda Jan. 22; however, township officials canceled that meeting.

The public notice spells out residency restrictions and exceptions for sex offenders. Definitions are provided in the law for child care facilities, open space, community centers, recreational areas and schools.

In Pennsylvania, Megan's Law regulates sex offenders after their release from prison. There are approximately 345 registered sex offenders living in Montgomery County, according to state police. Of that total, five live in Lower Pottsgrove, 42 live in Pottstown and three reside in Limerick.

Depending on the offense, violators must register with Pennsylvania for either a 10-year period or life.

Part of Lower Pottsgrove's ordinance states: "the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has no laws which adequately prohibit or restrict sexual offenders from residing or living near areas where children regularly meet or congregate."

The board "believes it is in the best interests of the township and its residents to adopt additional regulations regarding sexual offenders, in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of the township ... especially the children of the township."

According to state police, existing public notification can take place in only two instances: in cases where the convicted sex offender is determined by a court to be a "sexually violent predator," or when an out-of-state offender is required to submit to community notification in their state of origin, regardless of whether or not the offender is classified as a sexually violent predator.

This meeting begins at 7 p.m., 2199 Buchert Road.

NY - How far can - or should - communities go to restrict sex offenders?

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By Nancy Cutler

How can communities most effectively - and legally - protect themselves from convicted sex offenders? What kind of restrictions should be placed on the day-to-day lives of those deemed most at risk of re-offending? What role should local governments play in shaping those measures?

A recent state Supreme Court decision asserts that state regulations supercede local measures when it comes to regulating where convicted sex offenders can live. New York state has myriad laws regarding sex offenders, from Meagan's Law, which requires convicted sex offenders to notify law enforcement when they move into a community, to newly enacted guidelines and procedures concerning where the most dangerous sex offenders can live.

The Jan. 23 ruling by state Supreme Court Justice William Kelly invalidated Rockland's Pedophile Free Child Safety Zone Act, enacted in 2007. The local law has been the subject of several legal challenges, as have some of the 80-plus similar laws that have been adopted from Niagara Falls to Long Island. Such sex offender zones usually target those classified as Level 2 and Level 3 offenders. Level 2 designates a moderate risk of re-offending; Level 3 refers to those deemed at high risk of committing another crime.

Kelly's ruling in New City dismissed a probation violation against _____ for moving to a residence within 1,000 feet of a "Rockland County pedophile-free child safety zone," which included schools, child-care facilities, park playgrounds, youth centers and public swimming pools. Because the judge has ruled that the local law is pre-empted by state law, the county attorney has said that an appeal is unlikely, according to a county spokeswoman.

The court decision has implications beyond _____'s probation or even Rockland's safety zone law. Similar laws, including one in Putnam County, which recently updated its child zone law, ostensibly to avoid legal challenges, could also be in jeopardy. Westchester also has been considering child safety zone legislation. A New Jersey court last year struck down local safety zones, citing their interference with parole and probation officers' efforts to find suitable housing for offenders.

'Not in my backyard'

Judge Kelly expressed concern about "not in my backyard" residency requirements creating a hodge-podge of restrictions throughout New York. "Sex offender residency restrictions are multiplying throughout New York State, as local legislatures scramble to outmaneuver each other with highly restrictive ordinances designed to banish registered offenders from their community," Kelly wrote.

Indeed, that's what happened after the Rockland County Department of Social Services arranged for another Level 3 sex offender, _____, to be housed in Ulster County. _____ had been admitted to the county's Summit Park hospital for two weeks, but when it was time for him to be discharged, _____ said he couldn't find housing that complied with the county's child zone law. He ended up staying at the county-owned facility for 19 months; under state law, he couldn't be discharged without a place to go. After _____'s relocation to Ulster was revealed in the local media, Ulster officials protested, and now that county is considering similar residency regulations for sex offenders.

When Rockland's child safety zone law was passed by the county Legislature and signed by County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef, its limitations were duly noted. Some said it offered a false sense of security. The prime sponsor, Legislator Ed Day, R-New City, said it should not be seen as a total security blanket for children; it's just another tool for law enforcement. Vanderhoef has repeatedly said that the state must establish standards for housing sex offenders. Gov. David Paterson, when signing the recent updates to state law, directed state social service, parole and probation officials to address "a coordinated and comprehensive statewide policy that will both protect the public and ensure that there is suitable and appropriate housing available for sex offenders in every community in the State."

Rockland probation officers have complained that the child zone law has left few places in Rockland for sex offenders to reside, making it more difficult to monitor dangerous people. Day, a retired high-ranking NYPD officer, dismisses those complaints; he notes that other sex offenders have found places to live in Rockland, notwithstanding the restrictions.

Another take on offenders

Human Rights Watch U.S. researcher Sarah Tofte, based in Manhattan, examined residency restrictions in a 2007 report, "No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the U.S." No evidence could be found to show child safety laws diminished crimes against children, her research found. The organization monitors and defends human right issues around the world.

"For registered offenders, the main impact of the laws may be simply to drive them underground or to uproot them from their families and communities," the report states. Family support, counseling and employment are seen by many in the criminal justice community as strong motivators against recidivism. Her report concluded that, "Residency restrictions for convicted sex offenders should be determined on a case-by-case basis, for example by courts or probation and parole officers, and be subject to periodic review."

Paterson, in a memorandum on the state law last year, underscored the challenge of finding appropriate housing for offenders, a burden that falls on local probation and social services officials. Some probation and social service officials have said that by making it so difficult for them to find housing, sex offenders can slip into homelessness, which creates barriers to tracking their comings and goings - a dangerous proposition.
New York has tough laws

Kelly noted in his ruling that a 2005 state law barred sex offenders whose victims were minors and who were under parole and probation supervision from residing within 1,000 feet of schools. "In fact, New York has one of the strictest sex offender residency law(s) in the nation," Kelly wrote. As well, New York's Megan's Law shows the state's intention to manage the sex offender issues, according to Kelly's ruling. The state's newest sex offender regulations, which went into effect this month, mandate that local probation departments take responsibility for approving housing for sex offenders, Kelly notes. As Paterson wrote in his signing memorandum: "This bill recognizes that the placement of these offenders in the community has been and will continue to be a matter that is properly addressed by the State."

State regulations acknowledge a need for buffer zones, but demonstrate a long-term goal of reintegrating offenders into the community, Kelly stated. "Local residency laws don't," he said. "They permanently exclude offenders from communities, setting off a chain-reaction of fear-driven and increasingly restrictive laws."

Where does all this leave safety-conscious local communities? Still searching for answers as to how they can keep children safe - within the boundaries of the law.