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Lawsuits test crackdown on sex criminals

April 18, 2008 Leave a comment

Stateline.org: A death-penalty case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this week marks the latest constitutional challenge to an ongoing, nationwide crackdown on sex criminals.

From California to North Carolina, a flood of litigation has accompanied an expansion in the scope and severity of penalties imposed by local, state and federal lawmakers on those who commit sex crimes.

In Georgia and Ohio, sex criminals have successfully challenged residency restrictions that forbid them from living within 1,000 feet of schools or other common gathering places for children. California’s highest court also is considering whether to strike down zoning laws that could make huge swaths of the state off-limits to offenders.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, meanwhile, is preparing to hear arguments on the constitutionality of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, a wide-reaching federal law that requires all states to dramatically toughen penalties for sex criminals by July of next year, or risk losing funding from a congressional grant program. A trial judge ruled against parts of the law last year.

A broad spectrum of critics — including civil-rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, law enforcers, prosecuting attorneys and even some victims’ assistance groups — has criticized some of the recent local, state and federal laws aimed at sex criminals.

Many say the laws are more about political opportunism than public safety. Elected officials recognize that they can appeal to voters by piling up penalties on a widely detested criminal population that has few advocates willing to stand up for its rights, critics say

Meanwhile, the federal Adam Walsh Act is likely to face more litigation than any other statute because of its breadth. The law requires some juvenile offenders as young as 14 to be included in online registries and retroactively applies new registration requirements to offenders who have been out of prison for years.

Sarah Tofte, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has studied sex-offender laws and advocates for a comprehensive approach that focuses on treatment, said she thinks it is unlikely that lawmakers will back away from tough new laws — despite the mounting legal challenges.

She noted that the federal Second Chance Act signed by President Bush this month — which eases convicts’ re-entry into society by focusing on rehabilitation — does not apply to sex offenders, who are viewed by the public and by legislators as immutable, lifelong criminals.

“I think it’s going to be quite a while until we let sex offenders be treated like other ex-offenders,” Tofte said.