By DANA LARSEN
Iowa's sex offender laws continue to be under fire, sometimes described as "one size fits none," but in Buena Vista County, the existing laws seem to be working well, according to Major Doug Simons, who heads up enforcement of the Sex Offender Registry for the county sheriff's department.
The problem is, he adds, that the workload in tracking the offenders continues to grow as additional people are convicted.
"Over the 12 years we have seen more and more and more people on that list, and that trend is only going to continue - a few years ago laws were changed and a lot of people stay on the offender list much longer now, some for 25 years instead of the 10 years it used to be, and in more cases, for life."
The department is charged with knowing exactly where those people are, for as long as they reside in the county, and conducting checks.
There are about 52 people currently on the Sex Offender List in Buena Vista County, the third highest in the northwest quarter of the state and trailing only Woodbury County (the Sioux City metro area) and Cherokee County which is higher than BV because it is required to count residents of an inpatient treatment program for sexual abusers.
The sheriff's department has three people working on the sex offender registry enforcement at any given time, trying not to tie up any one officer's time from attending to other duties, according to Sheriff Gary Launderville.
Sex offenders who are new convicts, releases or have moved into the county are required to register with the sheriff's department. At that point, Simons said, they informed of the rules and given a written copy to sign.
The newest laws passed created a "tier" system, requiring those on the list to check in periodically based on the level of concern for risk to the public - one level must check in quarterly, one every six months, and one annually.
"On top of that we periodically do a quality control check, just to make sure they all are where they are supposed to be," Simons added. "If they are not, we have to either get them back in compliance, or they will be charges with violating the registry law."
Often, the best tips that there may be a problem come from the public, who have recognized an offender from the registry online.
"We check into every public concern that we get as quickly as we can," Simons explained. "It's not always someone trying to hide - often it's a case of a person who didn't fully understand the rules, and it turns out to be a non-issue. But we do depend on what we hear. I'm not saying violations of the law don't happen, and when they do, we find out about them, through a variety of means."
The department feels confident that at any given time, it knows where nearly all of the convicted residents of the county are at.
In most cases, Iowa's controversial "2,000 foot rule" has been dropped. In the past, sex offenders were barred from living within 2,000 feet of a school, day care, park or library where children would be gathered.
"Now, the 2,000 foot rule is applied only where the court feels it is specifically needed. We only have two or three in this county who cannot live inside the 2,000-foot barrier; most can live anywhere," said Simons.
He finds the change to be a good one. "The problem was, in small towns like we have, it meant there were hardly any places where a person could still live, and if there was no where to live legally, there was more incentive for people to try to hide from us."
While it is not unusual for persons on the offender list in the county to get charged for violating registry rules, the department has not seen a problem with them committing additional sexual offenses, according to Simons.
"I can't sit here and think of a single one that has re-offended."
- Study after study has proven that the recidivism for ex-sex offenders is one of the lowest of any other crime, yet ex-sex offenders are treated as if they will commit many crimes any chance they can get, which is false of course.
The offender registry has been a strong step in public protection, he feels.
"It's a big deal. People do use it, and we encourage the to look at it," Simons said.
"It does take a lot of our time to enforce, but the system does seem to work well."
- What does "work well" mean exactly?
Last session, both houses of the Iowa Legislature passed the Adam Walsh Child Safety & Protection Act on a near-unanimous vote. Some of the highlights include: better tracking of the most dangerous sex offenders; new exclusion zones for child sex offenders; and new work and volunteer restrictions for child sex offenders at places with children.
A new tool has also been added to the offender registry that lets the public track offenders by neighborhood.
Governor Branstad has sought additions to the law that would require residential care facilities to notify their communities and relatives of residents when sex offenders are living in their facilities. The proposed legislation is in response to an incident at a nursing home in Pomeroy where an elderly resident was assaulted by a registered sex offender who also resided there. Sex offenders sometimes are ordered to a care facility as part of a court order, as was the case in the Pomeroy incident. Officials estimated that about 55 registered sex offenders currently live in Iowa care facilities.
Still, according to an Associated Press report recently, Iowa is among 34 states that remain unable to meet the conditions of a 2006 federal law (bribery) that requires them to take part in a nationwide effort to track sex offenders. Five of them - Arizona, Arkansas, California, Nebraska and Texas - have completely given up on the effort, even though it means forfeiting millions of dollars in federal grants.