IN : Supreme Court’s Confusing Trail

August 30, 2009

pal-item.com (Richmond, IN) : Court’s trail confusing on sex offender rights.

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled this summer that an offender who owned his home before a new residential law restricting proximity to a school, public park or youth center could not be forced to move by the law.

The defendant was being charged with behavior after the implementation of the statute, not before.
“In other words,” we said, “he is not charged with owning a home, but continuing to reside in a home in violation of defined space limitations after the law was passed.”

Still there was consistency in the court’s position. The state’s high court only months before had struck down the conviction of a man for failing to register as a sex offender, noting in similar fashion that he had completed his sentence for child molestation before the state’s Sex Offender Registration Act was passed.

So it is that we find more confusion than consistency with the court’s most recent ruling this month letting stand without comment a Plainfield ordinance barring sex offenders from the town’s public parks.

This goes well beyond the narrower residency statute. It bans those who have served criminal sentences and who pay taxes in support of public parks from even setting foot in those parks. And even where their crimes were not committed in those parks.

The defendant in the Plainfield case had completed his sentence and probation when he was told by police while visiting the town’s recreation center with his young son that he could not return.

People who love the law for its fair play should have some issues with this kind of “Scarlet Letter” justice that continues to punish after the proverbial “debt to society” has been paid.

Now, supporters of these arguably overreaching restrictions will argue that it is the high rate of recidivism by sex offenders that targets them for ongoing restrictions to protect the larger society, especially innocent children.

The data on repeat offenses is more confusing than the Indiana Supreme Court’s recent rulings. One can cherry pick what they want to support a particular position. For example, a Justice Department study of 272,111 felons released from prison in 15 states during 1994 found sex offenders were less likely than non-sex offenders to be re-arrested for any offense, but that sex offenders were about four times more likely to be arrested for another sex crime after discharge from prison. (The study found that only 5.3 percent of sex offenders were rearrested for another sex crime)

But if the science convincingly supports the need to restrict the right to public property, or residency, or other basic rights for convicted sex offenders, then let that need be reflected in amended criminal codes that extend probationary periods upon conviction. That way, judges can rightfully impose those restrictions on a case-by-case basis within the broad parameters of probation. Those who violate specific terms of probation can be abruptly returned to prison, where they belong.

One thing that should be remembered here is that “sex offender” is itself a rather broad term, incorporating everything from the chronic perverts who prey on young children to, in some states, the 19-year-old youth caught and prosecuted for having consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend.

Simply denying fundamental rights to a class of citizens even a class loosely defined by past criminal conduct — under the guise of protecting society probably renders us all a little less free and secure.

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