Archive for October 12, 2009

“Um, I Have No Idea” Says Sex Offender Bill Author

October 12, 2009 Comments off

HoustonPress Blog : Bill Would Keep Sex Offenders From Doing Something, Maybe. It’s Hard To Tell.

Sometimes legislative bills don’t seem to be written in plain English, so it’s always best to go straight to the bill’s author to find out what’s up. But a bill authored by Republican State Senator Florence Shapiro of Plano seems remarkably straightforward: It prohibits registered sex offenders from “using the Internet to access pornographic material.”

It would also establish a means for “a commercial social networking site or Internet service provider” to be provided with a list of said perverts, so such businesses can alert authorities if they’re using those sites to prey on kids.

But what got Hair Balls was that first part — about not allowing these pervs to look at any pornography, or as stated later in the bill, anything deemed “obscene.” (The bill refers to the obscenity section of the penal code, which offers different definitions of obscenity, which include simulated sex.) Even though, as everyone knows, there is hardly any sex stuff on the Interweb, how would something like that even be enforced?

So Hair Balls called Shapiro, to see if she could elaborate. She was on the Senate floor as we talked, which might account for some of the ensuing strangeness.

Hair Balls: Does [this] mean that you do not want anyone convicted of a sex offense to look at sex by consenting adults online?

Shapiro: I have no idea… this is an agreed-to bill that came with the Attorney General, myself, and the online providers. It’s model language that came out of [the American Legislative Exchange Council].

(OK, so it turns out Shapiro wasn’t sure of all the particulars in the bill she attached her name to. But she explained to us that “The whole purpose of this is that we are seeing more and more young people on the Internet, and social networking of course is one of the major issues.”

She then said that the bill would prohibit certain sex offenders from joining social networking sites…which it doesn’t.)

Shapiro: We need to be able to have that list [the sex offender registry list] and make that list available to the social network providers to prevent these people from going online.

HB: So they can’t even use Facebook or MySpace, then, to talk to other adults?

Shapiro: Oh yes they can. Absolutely.

HB: They can?

Shapiro: I’m sorry, what did you just ask me?

HB: Can they use a social networking —

Shapiro: No. If they are convicted, no.

HB: They can’t even talk to an adult.

Shapiro: No, that’s correct….Facebook is not one of them. These are social networks. This is like Friendster and MySpace. I don’t know that…I don’t remember about Facebook….Facebook is one of them, you’re right, you’re right….No, the answer is no they cannot….This would prohibit them, if they’re on probation or they’re on parole, this would prohibit them from using the Internet for purposes of communicating with minors.

HB: But it also prohibits them from looking at anything that can be deemed obscene, which includes certain movies, certain art…

Shapiro: Are those things on MySpace or are they on Facebook? I don’t think they are. They can use the Internet — they just can’t communicate with minors….They can look at anything they want, as long as it has nothing to do with the children.

Um, actually, the bill says they couldn’t. So ultimately, Hair Balls wound up a lot more confused than before we even made the call. But the important thing is this: as long as well-informed lawmakers are out there passing sensible legislation that they actually take the time to read (if not write), we should have absolutely no fear for the safety of our children. Or something.

How Do We Pass Rational Sex-Offender Laws ?

October 12, 2009 Comments off : How Do We Pass Rational Sex-Offender Laws ?


Sex offender laws have gotten much harsher, no doubt about it. Along with mandatory minimums and post-incarceration monitoring, since 1994, when Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have created sex-offender registries containing the names and addresses of people convicted of crimes ranging from rape, to sexual abuse, to downloading child pornography, to statutory rape. (Megan’s Law, which requires community notification about sex offenders, was added to the Act two years later.)

In recent years, laws have passed to impose even stricter measures on convicted sex offenders, long after they have ostensibly paid their debt to society. The sweeping Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 set about the creation of a national sex-offender registry, “the first national online listing available to the public and searchable by ZIP code.” While it would supposedly classify sex offenders into different categories according to the severity of their crime, it has yet to be implemented.

Now, amid the shock and outrage surrounding the Garrido case, some are calling into question how effective such legislation has been. Let’s face it: Not every registered sex offender is a Phillip Garrido.

As Human Rights Watch pointed out in 2007, “in many states, people who urinate in public, teenagers who have consensual sex with each other, adults who sell sex to other adults, and kids who expose themselves as a prank are required to register as sex offenders.”

Yet registries and residency restrictions have often failed to distinguish between these and those on the opposite extreme, like Garrido, who could justifiably be classified as the worst of the worst. With 674,000 people on sex-offender registries across the country, this has stoked a culture of fear while making it harder for law enforcement to keep tabs on the most-dangerous sexual predators.

The conditions of their release require them to have a home of some sort. Yet expanding laws have made it harder for them to find a place to live. “State figures show a 27 percent increase in homelessness among California’s 67,000 registered sex offenders since the law took effect in November 2006,” it reported. Between August and the end of October 2007, “the number of offenders with no permanent address rose by 560, to 2,622.”

Americans have said they fear sex offenders more than they do terrorists, according to at least one poll.

This means that tough-on-sex-crimes legislation knows no bounds. Public sex-offender database? Check. Mandatory minimums for convicted sex offenders? Check. Color-coded license plates to alert you if that driver stuck in traffic with you might be a pervert? Ohio keeps trying.

In 2007, Human Rights Watch released a study, aptly titled “No Easy Answers,” based on a review of sex-offender registration data from all 50 states. The authors interviewed law-enforcement officials, survivors of sexual abuse and child-safety experts. They also interviewed 122 sex offenders and 90 of their loved ones. The conclusion was that sex-offender laws have gone too far.

“Human Rights Watch appreciates the sense of concern and urgency that has prompted these laws,” the report’s authors wrote. ” … Every child has the right to live free from violence and sexual abuse. Promoting public safety by holding offenders accountable and by instituting effective crime-prevention measures is a core governmental obligation”

Unfortunately, our research reveals that sex-offender registration, community notification and residency-restriction laws are ill-considered, poorly crafted and may cause more harm than good.

According to HRW, lawmakers “are steadily increasing the duration of registration requirements: in 17 states, registration is now for life. Yet former sex offenders are less and less likely to reoffend the longer they live offense-free.”

Also according to HRW, at least five states classify people who visit prostitutes as sex offenders; at least 32 require it for indecent exposure. At the same time, reported HRW, these laws “offer scant protection for children from the serious risk of sexual abuse that they face from family members or acquaintances. Indeed, people children know and trust are responsible for over 90 percent of sex crimes against them.”

The HRW report devoted a good portion of its 146 pages to the residency restrictions found in sex-offender legislation, calling them the “harshest as well as the most arbitrary.”

“The laws can banish registrants from their already-established homes, keep them from living with their families and make entire towns off-limits to them, forcing them to live in isolated rural areas.”

It also quoted Georgia House member Jerry Keen, who sponsored the state’s law banning registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of places where children gather. As Keen once said during a debate on the House floor: “My intent personally is to make [residency restrictions] so onerous on those that are convicted of [sex] offenses … they will want to move to another state.”

The HRW reports: “Registrants and their families have been hounded from their homes, had rocks thrown through their home windows, and feces left on their front doorsteps. They have been assaulted, stabbed and had their homes burned by neighbors or strangers who discovered their status as a previously convicted sex offender.

“At least four registrants have been targeted and killed (two in 2006 and two in 2005) by strangers who found their names and addresses through online registries. Other registrants have been driven to suicide, including a teenager who was required to register after he had exposed himself to girls on their way to gym class.

“Violence directed at registrants has injured others. The children of sex offenders have been harassed by their peers at school, and wives and girlfriends of offenders have been ostracized from social networks and at their jobs.”

In the face of truly grotesque sex crimes, it can be hard to maintain perspective. But doing so is crucial in order to address those many cases where legislation is doing more harm than good.

This won’t be easy. “Given the widespread belief in the myths about sex offenders’ inherent and incurable dangerousness, it is perhaps not surprising that very few public officials have questioned the laws or their efficacy,” says HRW.

As one ACLU lawyer out it, “We’ve gotten used to having few friends on this issue. With the exception of the criminal-defense bar, there just aren’t a whole lot of people who want to stand up for the rights of sex offenders.”

We Need Sex Offender Programs that Work

October 12, 2009 Comments off : Sex offender bans: Maybe smaller is better.

When dealing with sex offenders, the public needs laws, regulations and programs that work. It does no children any good to pass ordinances that make us all feel better but that don’t actually protect kids.

Local ordinances that ban sex offenders from living in certain parts of the community sound great. We loved the idea when we first heard of it. But it turns out that such ordinances often fail to make our children any safer and might actually make them less safe. On top of that, courts are ruling that they are unconstitutional.

The latest instance of this comes from Dover. In 2005, the city banned sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a school or day care center. The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union challenged the law, and this week District Court Judge Mark Weaver found it unconstitutional and ineffective in protecting kids.

Weaver ruled that the law violated sex offender Richard Jennings’ constitutional right to equal protection under the law. He also found no evidence that the law actually protected kids. Foster’s Daily Democrat reported that police could show no significant decrease in prosecutions of sex crimes against children, and “in one case there was an increase.”

Former Dover City Councilor Matt Mayberry proposed the ordinance nearly four years ago. As a real estate agent, he said he was shocked to see how many offenders lived close to local schools, Foster’s reported. We are shocked by that, too. Unfortunately, restrictions such as this one don’t seem to work. Police officers have told us that such sweeping bans encourage sex offenders not to register, thus making them harder to track, which puts children in greater danger.

Maybe much smaller buffer zones would be both constitutional and effective. A buffer of a block or two, instead of eight football fields, might improve safety while passing legal muster. Local officials shouldn’t give up trying to find ways to keep kids safe. They just need to find methods that work and that fit their communities.

Protecting Children From Sex Offenders

October 12, 2009 Comments off

ConcordMonitor : Protecting children from sex offenders.

There is an unwritten law that parents are allowed to become a tad overzealous when it comes to protecting their children. But instincts sometimes prove poor foundations for constructing laws. The district court judge who ruled Dover’s residency restrictions unconstitutional last week has done New Hampshire communities a favor by forcing them to reassess the ways they shield children from sex offenders.

A growing body of evidence – gathered not just by civil liberties lawyers, but from law enforcement officers, public officials and child advocacy groups – suggests that residency restrictions are placebo pills at best and counterproductive measures at worst. Such ordinances tend to give communities a false sense of security while driving sex offenders underground or into rural areas where they can’t access the services that give them the best chance at rehabilitation.

A 2007 study in Iowa, for instance, showed that sexual-abuse convictions had remained steady since statewide residency restrictions went into effect five years earlier but that the number of sex offenders failing to register had more than doubled.

A 2007 article in the journal Federal Probation draws a clear link between housing instability – one of the obvious consequences of residency ordinances – and criminal recidivism. It suggests a strategy of identifying and carefully monitoring the highest risk offenders and creating stable lives for the rest through treatment and access to housing, jobs and services.

Such efforts, of course, take money, as Barbara Keshen of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union pointed out to the Monitor last week. But that’s not the half of the problem. The very notion that helping – yes, helping sex offenders reintegrate into society may be the best way to protect our children has a way of enraging the public and dredging up sentiments of deep frustration. Why should we expend our resources on these (pick your epithet) people? Can’t we just exile them all to an island somewhere (a cold one, of course, with no creature comforts)?

We can’t, of course, even if all the registered sex offenders on our state’s rolls posed a real threat to our children (many don’t) and even if deporting all these frightening strangers would really keep our kids safe (in reality, 90 percent of sex offenders are family or friends of their victims). Aside from the offenders who meet the state’s definition of sexually violent predators – so far that’s only one person – they can’t stay locked up indefinitely, either.

And that brings us back to the reality that sex offenders will always live and work and go about their business among us, whether or not they reside within 2,500 feet of a school.

There’s another reality we ought to consider, too, one equally hard for parents to swallow but highly relevant to those protective instincts. Sex offenders are not made in a day. They do not spring from some alternate evil universe. Many, if not most, were preyed upon as children themselves. Statistics vary, but most studies put the rate of sexual offenders who were sexually abused as young people between 30 and 60 percent.

What’s more, many sex offenders are minors themselves. According to law enforcement records cited in a 2006 Valley News article, four in 10 abusers of children under the age of 13 are under age 17. And the small percentage of sex offenders who fit the clinical definition of pedophiles generally discover their deviant urges during adolescence.

It’s natural to want to draw lines between our children and the people who may harm them. But those lines may be more oblique than we would wish.

Gun Offender Registries

October 12, 2009 Comments off

We told you this was coming; Public Internet registries are now springing up all across the nation
( gun offender registries, violent crime registries, and animal cruelty registries, to name a few).
Soon, half our nation’s population will be listed on a public Internet registry. Where will we be then? Safer? (Albany, NY): Gun offender registry proposed.

The law, similar to the sex offender registry, would require any person convicted of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree to register their addresses with police and report personally to Utica Police every six months. Registration requirements would continue for four years after offenders are released.

“It makes sure police know where that person is. It makes sure that the offender knows they’re being watched. And if somebody fails to register or if somebody gives false information, that in itself becomes a basis for a violation and an arrest,” said criminal justice coordinator for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

New York, NY Chapter 10-601 “Gun Offender Registration Act” (Baltimore) : Gun offender registry yields first criminal charge.

There are currently 76 people who have been convicted of gun crimes who will have to register upon release.

Dixon signed the Gun Offender Registry Act into law Sept. 20 of last year, and it took effect Jan. 1. The city ordinance requires gun offenders to register with the Police Department immediately upon release from imprisonment and every six months afterward for three years.

A gun offender who violates the act, which applies to every gun conviction in Baltimore, faces up to a year in prison or a $1,000 fine. Each day the violation continues constitutes a separate violation, prosecutors said.

Baltimore, MD Council Bill 07-0738

WI : Proposed Drug Offenders Registry

October 12, 2009 Comments off (Wisconsin) : Proposed Drug Offenders Registry.

Convicted drug dealers may soon have to register to reside in Brown County, similar to the way sex offenders have to register.

Brown County Supervisor Bernie Erickson says, “if you’re caught doing something illegal, why should you be protected?” Erickson is pushing for drug offender registry. “It’s valuable for citizens or residents to know who’s living in their area and who’s their neighbor.”

Erickson’s proposal would require convicted drug users and dealers to register with Brown County, much like sex offenders do, and have their names and addresses printed in the paper.

“I would like to take that a step further and maybe have a hotline or something online, where people could go type in their zipcode and see who’s living in that general area.”

Brown County already has a drug offender neighborhood search on its website. All you do is type in a zip code and a listing comes up the names of offenders, their address at the time of their conviction and their offense.
The difference would be, offenders would have to register with the county and their current information would be available to the public.”

Several states like Minnesota and Tennessee have launched methamphetamine databases, that critics have attacked for stigmatizing reformed drug offenders, making it harder them to find employment and housing. (Gee, sound familiar?)

But Ben Heiman, president of the Imperial Neighborhood Association says the public has a right to know. “Anything that will help to curtail some of the problems is a good thing.”