Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Monday, October 12, 2009
Bills Being Requested as of yesterday.
LR: 2189: An act to Limit the Distance from a Day Care Facility within Which a Registered Sex Offender May Reside
LR: 2142: An Act to Increase the Maximum Distance from a School and a Day Care Center That May Be Set by Municipal Ordinance beyond Which a Sex Offender May Reside
LR: 2180: An Act To Provide to Certain Municipalities a Waiver of the Requirement To Adopt a Comprehensive Plan and Allow Those Municipalities To Enforce Their Ordinances
LR: 2383: An Act To Provide Full Accountability for Convicted Class D Sex Offenders
LR: 2105: An Act To Require Persons Who Commit Sex Offenses Against Dependent or Incapacitated Adults To Register under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 1999
Po Box 611
Bridgton, ME 04009
Maine Citizens For Change
Friday, October 9, 2009
Too Much Information, Not Enough Common SenseLink
A new Oklahoma law will require the details of every abortion to be posted on a public website.
Mothers -- or would-be mothers, rather -- will be prompted to answer 37 questions that range from her marital status and race to how many times she's ever been pregnant. One question asks for the woman's reason to abort, offering "relationship problems" as a possible check-off box, and it's difficult to ignore the judgmental and disapproving tone.
The website, which will cost $200,000 per year to implement, is intended to prevent or decrease the number of abortions in Oklahoma, but the bill has already raised considerable debate, attracting opposition from the Center For Reproductive Rights and former Oklahoma Representative Wanda Jo Stapleton, among others. This questionnaire not only forces doctors into an uncomfortable predicament -- failure to disclose this information would result in "criminal sanctions and loss of medical license," as Salon's Lynn Harris reports -- but, put simply, it shames women. "They're really just trying to frighten women out of having abortions," Kery Parks, director of external affairs at Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma, told Harris. Indeed, in a small town, probing details would easily identify the woman with a proverbial scarlet A.
Sensitivity issues aside, this possible law poses a question about the extent to which transparency works in today's information-saturated society, where the line between reasonable alerts and public shaming has increasingly blurred. The latter is nothing new, with historical roots in the mark of Cain, Jesus's crucifixion, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and the Nazis' yellow stars during the Holocaust -- quite the range right there.
More contemporary examples include a theft defendant in Michigan who was ordered by
a judge to bear the words "Daddy, don't steal" on his arm, and convicted shoplifters who were sentenced to wear neon green t-shirt with the phrase "I'm a thief" while performing community service in Ohio.
Sometimes, transparency makes complete sense, like when a medical professor promotes a specific drug and simultaneously sits on the board of its distributor. Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig discusses transparency's merits in The New Republic:
In particular, management transparency, which is designed to make the performance of government agencies more measurable, will radically improve how government works. And making government data available for others to build upon has historically produced enormous value -- from weather data, which produces more than $800 billion in economic value to the United States, to GPS data, liberated originally by Ronald Reagan, which now allows cell phones to instantly report (among other essential facts) whether Peets or Starbucks is closer.But Lessig's piece focuses more on the questionable uses of transparency, arguing that the good intentions do not always yield good results. Consider an editorial recently published in the New York Times about sex offender registries:
Meanwhile, an attempt to create a national registry -- part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act passed in 2006 -- has faltered badly. States fretting about the costs and legal complications all missed the deadline to comply, which was then extended to July 2010. They worry that the registry would create an overwhelming monitoring burden and that it uses crude means of assessing the likelihood that offenders might repeat their crimes. The list of offenders is so large as to be almost useless. It is supposed to include not only rapists and kidnappers but also flashers and teenagers who had consensual sex.The Offender Locator iPhone application is among Apple's top-selling features, but is it creating more harm than protection? In many ways, as these sorts of disclosures, literally available at our fingertips, spiral out of control, and everyone can find out everyone else's business in the virtual community created by the Internet, we seem to be returning to the dangerous age that Hawthrone described. Oklahoma legislators, take note: "Sunlight may well be a great disinfectant," Lessig says, "But as anyone who has ever waded through a swamp knows, it has other effects as well."
Monday, October 5, 2009
When Adults Fail Children—For Life
Sunday, September 20, 2009
The other day Larry King was interviewing Dr. Phil and several other people about the Garrido case. And Dr Phil Said "The question on everybody's mind is Philip Garrido involved in some of the other disappearances that we've been talking about tonight. Dan Simon, you've been in Antioch. You've been all over this. Experts that follow these things with pedophiles and sexual offenders tell us that the average sexual offender can have anywhere 100 to 400 victims throughout their lifetime. So the fact that Philip Garrido has been tied to one that we know of and a violent rape before leaves an awful lot of concern that there are other victims out there. What does law enforcement think about this?" Dan Simon was a guest from law enforcement also on the show. Now I have heard others makes similar claims. That one reason we have to be so tough on Sex Offenders is they have so many victims. I haven't come across any studies that have supported this claim. Does anyone reading this know of a study that does support this claim of a high number of victims?
Let's take a minute and look at the numbers. There are over 650,000 registered former offenders. I've heard numbers putting the registry numbers at over 700,000. But for now lets just use the 650,000, figure, if each person on the registry each had 100 victims that would mean there are 65,000,000 victims of sexual abuse. And at 400 each that numbers come out to 260,000,000. Say the words two hundred and sixty MILLION potentional victims of sexual abuse! As of July 2006 the population of the United States is 304,059,724. If the numbers being quoted by the media and politicians are true then almost every person in the United States has been molested by someone already on the registry. And what about the new cases being reported? Over 86% of cases reported are new offenders, people not already on the sex offender registry. Lets look at another fact that is often touted out when you hear these 'experts' talking. Sexual abuse is very under reported. If so how do the numbers add up? On the ARC radio show, with Ron Book as the guest, one caller countered those very myths by saying "If at the rate the media is claiming, children are being victimized. We would be knee high deep in this country, in the bodies of dead & abused children."
Saturday, September 19, 2009
From The Times
A sad lesson in ‘know thy neighbor’
Megan’s Law did not protect Jaycee Dugard. It helped create ghettos of abuse – and would do Link here
Friday, September 18, 2009
Thursday, September 10, 2009
State law set to change city's sex offender ordinancehttp://www.keepmecurrent.com/american_journal/news/article_e2946838-9e46-11de-8b21-001cc4c002e0.html
Please feel free to leave comments
Posted: Thursday, September 10, 2009 3:20 pm | Updated: 5:16 pm, Thu Sep 10, 2009.
Westbrook police Detective Dan Violette says there's a reason the number of sex offenders living and working in the city hasn't changed much in the past two years.
Since the City Council adopted one of the strictest ordinances in the state prohibiting registered sex offenders from living or working in most of the city, Violette has had to force people out of their new apartments and make them quit their jobs.
According to the detective, who said he spends about 25 percent of his work week keeping track of sex offenders in the city, about 37 registered sex offenders live in Westbrook and an additional 16 work there.
"The number hasn't fluctuated very much," Violette said.
But that could change when a new state law goes into effect Saturday, nullifying Westbrook's ordinance.
The City Council will vote Monday on whether to adopt the state's new maximum allowable restrictions on where sex offenders can live. If passed, the 2,500-foot buffer zones around all places children frequent will be replaced with 750-foot restricted areas just around schools. And that only covers residency. The state law says that towns and cities cannot restrict where sex offenders can work.
In a gesture showing their disapproval of the state law, Gorham town councilors last week refused to change the town's restrictive ordinance in order to comply. However, it's still in question what the town's police department will be able to enforce once the law goes into effect.
Though Violette said he'll still spend the same amount of time monitoring sex offenders in the city and notifying neighbors and employers of their whereabouts, the state law takes away some of his authority over sex offenders and a safeguard for Westbrook children.
"It's given me more tools to help make sure sex offenders were in compliance," he said about the old law.
DRAWN TO WESTBROOK
There are no demographics that encompass all sex offenders, Violette said, but because a lot of employers don't want to hire registered sex offenders, many, regardless of their backgrounds and skills, don't have steady sources of income.
"You're a convicted felon. That makes you ineligible to work in a lot of places," Violette said.
Because of that, he believes the amount of low-income housing in Westbrook draws more sex offenders. Though Portland is probably the most attractive city in the area for jobless sex offenders because of its shelters and support services, he said, "we're ripe for the picking as far as increasing our numbers."
However, some say that keeping people out of jobs and homes because of their sex offender status is unconstitutional.
Jane Cantral, who runs Maine Citizens for Change - a local affiliate of the national group Reform Sex Offender Laws - said she and her boyfriend Calvin Shelton, a registered sex offender, didn't have an easy time finding a home in this area of the state.
"We're trying to buy a house and we're looking at maps," said Cantral, a Bridgton resident who was herself the victim of a sex offender.
"It sounds good as a knee-jerk reaction, but if you really thought about it, how much sense does it make?" Cantral said.
She pointed to the fact that students are not in school at night, when most sex offenders are in their homes. She also noted that kids are better looked after in schools and day cares than they are the rest of the day.
"I don't think residency restrictions are needed at all," she said.
Cantral hopes that more efforts will be made on educating parents and children and treating sex offenders rather than on making local or state laws that she believes are ineffective.
IS LESS MORE?
But success is measured in different ways when it comes to sex offender laws.
Violette said he scans the state's sex offender registry about once a week to see if there are any new registered sex offenders living or working in Westbrook. During the past two years, he said, he's had to ask about a dozen people to leave their jobs, usually because of their proximity to day cares. Though he's gotten mixed reactions from employers - some thank Violette for making them aware of the charges, others would rather to keep the workers regardless of them - the sex offenders themselves tend to comply quickly.
"Almost every time, they quit right way," he said.
Other than the case of one registered sex offender Violette had to repeatedly chase out of a Spring Street apartment, he said the same willingness to obey the ordinance was true of sex offenders trying to move to the city. He said he's had to turn down about five or six sex offenders who tried to move into restricted areas of the city from out of town and another half-dozen who wanted to move within Westbrook.
Overall, Violette estimated that about 20 additional sex offenders would be living or working in the city today if it weren't for the ordinance.
"It was working," he said.
PEACE OF MIND
One woman who was an outspoken advocate of the Westbrook ordinance when it was adopted said she plans to speak up again at the council meeting Monday.
Jen Wescott, who has two family members that were sex crime victims, said even with the ordinance in place, as a mother and a day care owner, she's on constant alert, keeping an eye on who's around. The city's law offered extra protection.
"It gives you a little more sense of security," Wescott said.
But creating a false sense of security is one of the arguments opponents have against residency restrictions.
"They have a tendency to drive offenders underground," Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, who sponsored the bill, said in June, when the law was passed. "Then you don't know where they are, which is a more dangerous situation."
Those who support less-stringent residency resrictions say the vast majority of sex crimes are committed by people known to the victims - which was the case with Wescott's family members and with Cantral, as well.
While Cantral argues that over-reaching restrictions violate the rights of former criminals who have paid their debts to society, Wescott and Violette both believe that additional protection against sex offenders can only help to keep kids safer.
"Any buffer you put between a sex offender and our vulnerable children, I think that's a good thing," Violette said.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Sunday, September 6, 2009
The Jaycee Dugard case illustrates how America's sex offender registries hurt efforts to stop repeat sex crimes
Americans have been doing some soul-searching about our approach to monitoring convicted sex offenders since the recent discovery of Jaycee Lee Dugard. Dugard was kidnapped in California at age 11 and held captive for 18 years in Phillip Garrido's garden. He managed to hide his secret prisoner from the police even though he was a convicted rapist and his name appeared on the public sex offender registry.
In the past, news of a horrific crime committed by a convicted sex offender inevitably led to widespread calls for increasing the scope of sex offender registration and community notification laws. Over the past 15 years, the US has expanded its registration and notification schemes to include an estimated 674,000 convicted sex offenders. Some remain on the public list for the rest of their lives, regardless of the seriousness of their offence, the current threat they might pose or their progress toward rehabilitation . The effectiveness of such laws has rarely been questioned, and they enjoy widespread public support.
But this time around, there has been a different type of discussion. Rather than just calling for tougher sex offender monitoring laws, Americans are openly wondering if a new approach is needed to deal with convicted sex offenders who have re-entered the community.
Although Garrido's case is extraordinary, it illustrates the flaws in America's sex offender registration and community notification schemes. Experts in sexual violence say that placing all convicted sex offenders on a registry for life may do more harm than good. The public nature of the registry makes it nearly impossible for convicted sex offenders to re-enter the community with the kind of support system they need to reduce their likelihood of committing another offence. Low-level offenders who pose little risk to the community are monitored in the same way as high-risk offenders, diluting police resources to concentrate on those, such as Garrido, who pose a high risk of committing another offence.
Furthermore, focusing so much public attention and resources on convicted sex offenders ignores the reality of sexual violence in the United States. It is estimated that 87% of new sex crimes every year are committed by individuals without a prior sex crime conviction. And very few sex crimes move through the system – less than one-third of all reported rapes result in an arrest.
So pouring scarce resources into monitoring all convicted offenders means there is less money for programmes to prevent sexual violence and counsel victims and for the rape investigation units, rape evidence testing and other tools that could bring justice in these cases.
Because of such concerns, Human Rights Watch called in a 2007 report for a major revamping of America's sex offender laws. Registration should be limited to former offenders who have been individually assessed as dangerous, and only for as long as they pose a significant risk. Community notification should be restricted to those who genuinely can benefit from knowledge about dangerous former offenders in their midst.
Sex offender registration and community notification laws didn't cause Garrido's crimes, but they didn't help the police stop them, either. While Americans are starting to question the value of our extensive sex offender monitoring system, it remains to be seen whether these doubts will lead to real reform.
Once sex offender laws are in place, it is hard for politicians to repeal them, because they don't want to appear weak on the issue of sex offenders. If Britain wants to do more to prevent sexual violence, it should keep its sex offender registry narrowly focused, and use the savings in time, energy and resources to implement sexual violence prevention policies that will actually keep the public safe.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Read here on the Free range Kids Blog
Okay, here is some weekend reading to sink your teeth into. It’s an article from the Economist:
“Unjust and Ineffective: America has pioneered the harsh punishment of sex offdenders. Does It Work?”
The short answer is “No.” We are putting people on sex offender registries who do not belong there at all. People who peed in public. Streakers. Johns. Teenagers who had consensual sex. The registry does not discriminate between violet pedophiles and once-horny young folk who are now 30-year-old housewives, like one of the people profiled in the piece. Wendy Whitaker was 17 when she had sex (at school — dumb!) with her underage-by-three weeks boyfriend. She was arrested for it and her lawyer told her to plead guilty to get it over with. She did. But it was never over.
One of the plea bargain conditions was that she check in regularly with her probation officer. When she didn’t, she was thrown in jail for more than a year. She finished probation in 2002 but she’s still on a public registry that does not exmpain what she did. So, as notes the article, “it looks like she did something terrible to a helpless child.”
In all, according to the Economist, about 5% of the people on the sex offender registries pose a serious risk to children. Usually, when not in jail, these people end up wearing ankle bracelets. But when you pull up one of those Sex Offender Maps — really easy to do on the Web (and now on the iPhone!)– it looks like wherever you turn, there’s another child rapist. Which, of course, leads to more fear on the part of parents. That is understable. Our pig-headed insistence on lumping everyone together on these lists and never taking them off is not. Especially because — get this: “Registering sex offenders and warning their neighbors cost millions & had no effect on the number of sex crimes.”
No effect. One more quote from The Economist, which says that the sex offender laws, “get harsher and harsher. But that does not necessarily mean they get better. If there are thousands of offenders on a registry, it is harder to keep track of the most dangerous ones. Budgets are tight. Georgia’s sheriffs complain that they have been given no extra money or manpower to help them keep the huge and swelling sex-offenders’ registry up to date or to police its confusing mass of rules. Terry Norris of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association cites a man who was convicted of statutory rape two decades ago for having consensual sex with his high-school sweetheart, to whom he is now married…. “We spend the same amount of time on that guy as on someone who’s done something heinous.’”
From a Free-Range standpoint, it is appalling that these sex offender registries make it seem as if children are unsafe on any street. From a humanitarian viewpoint, it is appalling to think of our government is not ready to revamp the whole thing. Kids — and grown ups caught peeing in public — would all be safer. — Lenore
Friday, August 7, 2009
America's unjust sex laws
From The Economist print edition
An ever harsher approach is doing more harm than good, but it is being copied around the world
IT IS an oft-told story, but it does not get any less horrific on repetition. Fifteen years ago, a paedophile enticed seven-year-old Megan Kanka into his home in New Jersey by offering to show her a puppy. He then raped her, killed her and dumped her body in a nearby park. The murderer, who had recently moved into the house across the street from his victim, had twice before been convicted of sexually assaulting a child. Yet Megan’s parents had no idea of this. Had they known he was a sex offender, they would have told their daughter to stay away from him.
In their grief, the parents started a petition, demanding that families should be told if a sexual predator moves nearby. Hundreds of thousands signed it. In no time at all, lawmakers in New Jersey granted their wish. And before long, “Megan’s laws” had spread to every American state.
America’s sex-offender laws are the strictest of any rich democracy. Convicted rapists and child-molesters are given long prison sentences. When released, they are put on sex-offender registries. In most states this means that their names, photographs and addresses are published online, so that fearful parents can check whether a child-molester lives nearby. Under the Adam Walsh Act of 2006, another law named after a murdered child, all states will soon be obliged to make their sex-offender registries public. Such rules are extremely popular. Most parents will support any law that promises to keep their children safe. Other countries are following America’s example, either importing Megan’s laws or increasing penalties: after two little girls were murdered by a school caretaker, Britain has imposed multiple conditions on who can visit schools.
Which makes it all the more important to ask whether America’s approach is the right one. In fact its sex-offender laws have grown self-defeatingly harsh (see article). They have been driven by a ratchet effect. Individual American politicians have great latitude to propose new laws. Stricter curbs on paedophiles win votes. And to sound severe, such curbs must be stronger than the laws in place, which in turn were proposed by politicians who wished to appear tough themselves. Few politicians dare to vote against such laws, because if they do, the attack ads practically write themselves.
In all, 674,000 Americans are on sex-offender registries—more than the population of Vermont, North Dakota or Wyoming. The number keeps growing partly because in several states registration is for life and partly because registries are not confined to the sort of murderer who ensnared Megan Kanka. According to Human Rights Watch, at least five states require registration for people who visit prostitutes, 29 require it for consensual sex between young teenagers and 32 require it for indecent exposure. Some prosecutors are now stretching the definition of “distributing child pornography” to include teens who text half-naked photos of themselves to their friends.
How dangerous are the people on the registries? A state review of one sample in Georgia found that two-thirds of them posed little risk. For example, Janet Allison was found guilty of being “party to the crime of child molestation” because she let her 15-year-old daughter have sex with a boyfriend. The young couple later married. But Ms Allison will spend the rest of her life publicly branded as a sex offender.
Several other countries have sex-offender registries, but these are typically held by the police and are hard to view. In America it takes only seconds to find out about a sex offender: some states have a “click to print” icon on their websites so that concerned citizens can put up posters with the offender’s mugshot on trees near his home. Small wonder most sex offenders report being harassed. A few have been murdered. Many are fired because someone at work has Googled them.
Registration is often just the start. Sometimes sex offenders are barred from living near places where children congregate. In Georgia no sex offender may live or work within 1,000 feet (300 metres) of a school, church, park, skating rink or swimming pool. In Miami an exclusion zone of 2,500 feet has helped create a camp of homeless offenders under a bridge.
There are three main arguments for reform. First, it is unfair to impose harsh penalties for small offences. Perhaps a third of American teenagers have sex before they are legally allowed to, and a staggering number have shared revealing photographs with each other. This is unwise, but hardly a reason for the law to ruin their lives. Second, America’s sex laws often punish not only the offender, but also his family. If a man who once slept with his 15-year-old girlfriend is barred for ever from taking his own children to a playground, those children suffer.
Third, harsh laws often do little to protect the innocent. The police complain that having so many petty sex offenders on registries makes it hard to keep track of the truly dangerous ones. Cash that might be spent on treating sex offenders—which sometimes works—is spent on huge indiscriminate registries. Public registers drive serious offenders underground, which makes them harder to track and more likely to reoffend. And registers give parents a false sense of security: most sex offenders are never even reported, let alone convicted.
It would not be hard to redesign America’s sex laws. Instead of lumping all sex offenders together on the same list for life, states should assess each person individually and include only real threats. Instead of posting everything on the internet, names could be held by the police, who would share them only with those, such as a school, who need to know. Laws that bar sex offenders from living in so many places should be repealed, because there is no evidence that they protect anyone: a predator can always travel. The money that a repeal saves could help pay for monitoring compulsive molesters more intrusively—through ankle bracelets and the like.
In America it may take years to unpick this. However practical and just the case for reform, it must overcome political cowardice, the tabloid media and parents’ understandable fears. Other countries, though, have no excuse for committing the same error. Sensible sex laws are better than vengeful ones.
| Copyright © 2009 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved. |
From The Economist print edition
America has pioneered the harsh punishment of sex offenders. Does it work?
ONE day in 1996 the lights went off in a classroom in Georgia so that the students could watch a video. Wendy Whitaker, a 17-year-old pupil at the time, was sitting near the back. The boy next to her suggested that, since it was dark, she could perform oral sex on him without anyone noticing. She obliged. And that single teenage fumble wrecked her life.
Her classmate was three weeks shy of his 16th birthday. That made Ms Whitaker a criminal. She was arrested and charged with sodomy, which in Georgia can refer to oral sex. She met her court-appointed lawyer five minutes before the hearing. He told her to plead guilty. She did not really understand what was going on, so she did as she was told.
She was sentenced to five years on probation. Not being the most organised of people, she failed to meet all the conditions, such as checking in regularly with her probation officer. For a series of technical violations, she was incarcerated for more than a year, in the county jail, the state women’s prison and a boot camp. “I was in there with people who killed people. It’s crazy,” she says.
She finished her probation in 2002. But her ordeal continues. Georgia puts sex offenders on a public registry. Ms Whitaker’s name, photograph and address are easily accessible online, along with the information that she was convicted of “sodomy”. The website does not explain what she actually did. But since it describes itself as a list of people who have “been convicted of a criminal offence against a victim who is a minor or any dangerous sexual offense”, it makes it sound as if she did something terrible to a helpless child. She sees people whispering, and parents pulling their children indoors when she walks by.
The registry is a gold mine for lazy journalists. A local television station featured Ms Whitaker in a spot on local sex offenders, broadcasting a helpful map showing where she lives but leaving the specifics of the crime to each viewer’s fearful imagination. “My husband’s family saw me on TV,” she says. “That’s embarrassing.”
What Ms Whitaker did is no longer a crime in Georgia. The state’s sodomy laws, which in 1996 barred oral sex even between willing spouses, were struck down by court rulings in 1998 and 2003. And since 2006, thanks to a “Romeo and Juliet” clause in a sex-crimes law, consensual sex between two teenagers has been a misdemeanour, not a crime, if one partner is underage but no more than four years younger than the other.
The Romeo and Juliet clause was not retroactive, however, so Ms Whitaker is stuck on the register, and subject to extraordinary restrictions. Registered sex offenders in Georgia are barred from living within 1,000 feet of anywhere children may congregate, such as a school, a park, a library, or a swimming pool. They are also banned from working within 1,000 feet of a school or a child-care centre. Since the church at the end of Ms Whitaker’s street houses a child-care centre, she was evicted from her home. Her husband, who worked for the county dog-catching department, moved with her, lost his job and with it their health insurance.
Thanks to a lawsuit filed by the Southern Centre for Human Rights, a group that campaigns against rough justice, Ms Whitaker won an injunction allowing her to return home. But her husband did not get his job back, and now works as a labourer. The two of them are struggling financially. And Ms Whitaker is still fighting to get her name removed from the registry. “When you’re a teenager, you do stuff,” she says. “You don’t think you’ll be paying for it when you’re nearly 30.”
Every American state keeps a register of sex offenders. California has had one since 1947, but most states started theirs in the 1990s. Many people assume that anyone listed on a sex-offender registry must be a rapist or a child molester. But most states spread the net much more widely. A report by Sarah Tofte of Human Rights Watch, a pressure group, found that at least five states required men to register if they were caught visiting prostitutes. At least 13 required it for urinating in public (in two of which, only if a child was present). No fewer than 29 states required registration for teenagers who had consensual sex with another teenager. And 32 states registered flashers and streakers.
Because so many offenses require registration, the number of registered sex offenders in America has exploded. As of December last year, there were 674,000 of them, according to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. If they were all crammed into a single state, it would be more populous than Wyoming, Vermont or North Dakota. As a share of its population, America registers more than four times as many people as Britain, which is unusually harsh on sex offenders. America’s registers keep swelling, not least because in 17 states, registration is for life.
Georgia has more than 17,000 registered sex offenders. Some are highly dangerous. But many are not. And it is fiendishly hard for anyone browsing the registry to tell the one from the other. The Georgia Sex Offender Registration Review Board, an official body, assessed a sample of offenders on the registry last year and concluded that 65% of them posed little threat. Another 30% were potentially threatening, and 5% were clearly dangerous. The board recommended that the first group be allowed to live and work wherever they liked. The second group could reasonably be barred from living or working in certain places, said the board, and the third group should be subject to tight restrictions and a lifetime of monitoring. A very small number “just over 100” are classified as “predators”, which means they have a compulsion to commit sex offenses. When not in jail, predators must wear ankle bracelets that track where they are.
Despite the board’s findings, non-violent offenders remain listed and subject to a giant cobweb of controls. One rule, championed by Georgia’s House majority leader, banned them from living within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop. This proved unworkable. Thomas Brown, the sheriff of DeKalb county near Atlanta, mapped the bus stops in his patch and realized that he would have to evict all 490 of the sex offenders living there. Other than the bottom of a lake or the middle of a forest, there was hardly anywhere in Georgia for them to live legally. In the end Georgia’s courts stepped in and suspended the bus-stop rule, along with another barring sex offenders from volunteering in churches. But most other restrictions remain.
Sex-offender registries are popular. Rape and child molestation are terrible crimes that can traumatize their victims for life. All parents want to protect their children from sexual predators, so politicians can nearly always win votes by promising curbs on them. Those who object can be called soft on child-molesters, a label most politicians would rather avoid. This creates a ratchet effect. Every lawmaker who wants to sound tough on sex offenders has to propose a law tougher than the one enacted by the last politician who wanted to sound tough on sex offenders.
So laws get harsher and harsher. But that does not necessarily mean they get better. If there are thousands of offenders on a registry, it is harder to keep track of the most dangerous ones. Budgets are tight. Georgia’s sheriffs complain that they have been given no extra money or manpower to help them keep the huge and swelling sex-offenders’ registry up to date or to police its confusing mass of rules. Terry Norris of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association cites a man who was convicted of statutory rape two decades ago for having consensual sex with his high-school sweetheart, to whom he is now married. “It doesn’t make it right, but it doesn’t make him a threat to anybody,” says Mr Norris. “We spend the same amount of time on that guy as on someone who’s done something heinous.”
Money spent on evicting sex offenders cannot be spent on treating them. Does this matter? Politicians pushing the get-tough approach sometimes claim that sex offenders are mostly incorrigible: that three-quarters or even nine out of ten of them reoffend. It is not clear where they find such numbers. A study of nearly 10,000 male sex offenders in 15 American states found that 5% were rearrested for a sex crime within three years. A meta-analysis of 29,000 sex offenders in Canada, Britain and America found that 24% had reoffended after 15 years.
That is obviously still too high. Whether or not treatment can help is disputed. A Californian study of sex offenders who underwent “relapse prevention”, counselling of the sort that alcoholics get from Alcoholics Anonymous, found that it was useless. But a meta-analysis of 23 studies by Karl Hanson of Canada’s department of public safety found that psychological therapy was associated with a 43% drop in recidivism. Some offenders—particularly men who rape boys—are extremely hard to treat. Some will never change until they are too old to feel sexual urges. But some types of treatment appear to work for some people and further research could yield more breakthroughs.
Publicising sex offenders’ addresses makes them vulnerable to vigilantism. In April 2006, for example, a vigilante shot and killed two sex offenders in Maine after finding their addresses on the registry. One of the victims had been convicted of having consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend when he was 19. In Washington state in 2005 a man posed as an FBI agent to enter the home of two sex offenders, warning them that they were on a “hit list” on the internet. Then he killed them.
Murders of sex offenders are rare, but harassment is common. Most of the offenders interviewed for this article said they had experienced it. “Bill”, who spent nine months in jail for having consensual sex with a 15-year-old when he was 27 and is now registered in North Carolina, says someone put up posters with his photograph on them around his district. (In at least four states, each offender’s profile on the online registry comes with a handy “click to print” function.) The local kids promptly stopped playing with Bill’s three children. And someone started leaving chopped-up sausages on his car, a possible reference to castration. Bill and his family moved house.
Jill Levenson, of Lynn University in Florida, says half of registered sex offenders have trouble finding jobs. From 20% to 40% say they have had to move house because a landlord or neighbour realised they were sex offenders. And most report feeling depressed, hopeless or afraid.
“Mike” spent a year and a half behind bars for statutory rape after having sex with a girl who said she was 17, but was two years younger. He was 22 at the time. Since his release, he has struggled to hold down a job. Once, he found work as a security guard, but his probation officer told him to quit, since the uniform lent him an air of authority, which would not do.
He is now unemployed, and lives in a flophouse in Atlanta between a jail and a strip club. The area is too desolate to have any schools or parks, so he is allowed to live there. His neighbours are mostly other sex offenders and mentally ill folk who talk to themselves. “It’s Bumville,” sighs Mike. His ambition is to get a job, keep it and move out. Any job will do, he says.
Several studies suggest that making it harder for sex offenders to find a home or a job makes them more likely to reoffend. Gwenda Willis and Randolph Grace of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, for example, found that the lack of a place to live was “significantly related to sexual recidivism”. Candace Kruttschnitt and Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota and Kelly Shelton of the Minnesota Department of Corrections tracked 556 sex offenders on probation and found less recidivism among those with a history of stable employment.
Some bosses do not mind hiring sex offenders, if they know the full story and the offender does not seem dangerous. But an accessible online registry makes it all but certain that a colleague or a customer will find out about a sexual conviction. Sex offenders often report being sacked for no apparent reason. Mike had a job at a cake shop. His boss knew about his record. But one day, without warning, he was fired.
Publicly accessible sex-offender registries are intended to keep people safe. But there is little evidence that they do. A study by Kristen Zgoba of the New Jersey Department of Corrections found that the state’s system for registering sex offenders and warning their neighbours cost millions of dollars and had no discernible effect on the number of sex crimes. Restricting where sex offenders can live is supposed to keep them away from potential victims, but it is doubtful that this works. A determined predator can always catch a bus.
Laws that make life hard for sex offenders also affect their families. A survey by Ms Levenson found that 86% of family members felt stressed because of registration and residence rules, and 49% feared for their own safety. “It’s very difficult,” says Bill. “Pretty much all the things that make you a good father are now illegal for me to do.” He cannot take his children to a park, a pool, or a museum. He cannot be at any of their school events. And his children are ostracised. “The parents find out I’m registered and that’s it,” he sighs.
The penalties for sex offenders who break the rules can be severe. In Georgia the first time you fail to provide an accurate address or register annually with the county sheriff to be photographed and fingerprinted, you face ten to 30 years in prison. The second time: life. Yet because living on a public sex-offender registry is so wretched, many abscond.
Some states have decided that harsher sex laws are not always better. Iowa has sharply reduced the number of sex offences for which residency restrictions apply. Previously, all Iowan sex offenders who had abused children were barred from living within 2,000 feet of a school or child-care centre. Since where offenders lived was defined as where they slept, many would spend the day at home with their families and sleep at night in their cars at a highway rest stop. “That made no sense,” says Corwin Ritchie of the Iowa County Attorneys Association. “We don’t try to monitor where possible bank robbers sleep.”
The Iowan politicians who relaxed the law gave themselves cover by adding a new rule against “loitering” near schools. Mr Ritchie thinks the new rules are better, but he would rather get rid of the residency restrictions entirely and let probation officers make recommendations for each individual offender.
Nationwide, the trend is to keep getting stricter. In 1994 Congress ordered all states that had not yet done so to set up sex-offender registries or lose some funding. Two years later it ordered them to register the most serious offenders for life. In 2006 it passed the Adam Walsh Act, named for a six-year-old boy who was kidnapped and beheaded, broadening the categories of offence for which registration is required and obliging all states to upload their registries to a national database. States had until this summer to comply with that provision. Some objected. In May they were given another year’s breathing space.
Other countries now seem to be following America’s lead. Hottest on its heels is Britain, where the sex-offenders’ registry includes children as young as 11. The British list is not open to the public, but in some areas parents may ask for a check on anyone who has unsupervised access to their child. France, too, now has a closed national directory of sex-offenders, as does Austria, which brought in some American-style movement restrictions on sex offenders earlier this year. After the disappearance in Portugal in 2007 of Madeleine McCann, a British toddler, some European politicians have called for a pan-European registry.
Human Rights Watch urges America to scale back its sex-offender registries. Those convicted of minor, non-violent offences should not be required to register, says Ms Tofte. Nor should juveniles. Sex offenders should be individually assessed, and only those judged likely to rape someone or abuse a child should be registered. Such decisions should be regularly reviewed and offenders who are rehabilitated (or who grow too old to reoffend) should be removed from the registry. The information on sex-offender registries should be held by the police, not published online, says Ms Tofte, and released “on a need-to-know basis”. Blanket bans on all sex offenders living and working in certain areas should be abolished. Instead, it makes sense for the most dangerous offenders sometimes to face tailored restrictions as a condition of parole.
That package of reforms would bring America in line with the strictest laws in other rich countries. But few politicians would have the courage to back it. “Jane”, the mother of a sex offender in Georgia, says she sent a letter to her senator, Saxby Chambliss, urging such reforms. “They didn’t even read it,” she says. “They just sent me a form letter assuring me that they were in favour of every sex offender law, and that [Senator Chambliss] has grandchildren he wants to protect.”
|Copyright © 2009 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.|
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
I just heard this great lady on America's Reality Check Radio show archived here. Thanks Ellen! Used with permission.
15 Shocking Tales of How Sex Laws Are Screwing the American People
By Ellen Friedrichs, AlterNet
Posted on June 12, 2009, Printed on August 5, 2009
The older I get, the luckier I feel not to have been busted for breaking a sex law. It’s not that I have been doing anything particularly scandalous. Public sex sure isn’t my thing, and I’m not in the habit of spamming my friends and colleagues with XXX emails. But in a world where a teen can get arrested for texting a boyfriend her own nudie shots, I don't want to take anything for granted.
Really though, my clean record probably has as much to do with where I've lived, as with what I've done. Growing up in Canada, meant that I didn’t worry about the legal ramifications of losing my virginity to my high school boyfriend. Had I spent those angst-ridden years in Texas, or even Maine, I could have been charged with the crime of underage sex.
Similarly, accompanying a terrified 16-year-old to a New York City clinic for an abortion a few years back could have been illegal if I had done the same thing in many of the 34 states with parental consent and notification laws for this procedure.
So I've been fortunate. But plenty of other people haven't. We often don't realize that sex regulations extend beyond archaic blue laws banning things like having sex in a toll booth, or forbidding sororities on the basis that women living together constitute a brothel. Such prohibitions may remain on the books, but people seldom, if ever, face charges for breaking them. The sex laws that do get enforced every day tend to be a lot less laughable.
Occasionally, the focus on a particular case can lead to a law’s repeal. For example, in 2004, a Texas mom was arrested for violating that state's ban on selling sex toys after she was busted hawking vibrators to her friends. The coverage of the incident drew attention to the statute and eventually lead to its 2008 nullification. And famously, following a 2002 arrest for having anal sex with his boyfriend, John Lawrence argued his case before the U. S. Supreme Court, and succeeded in getting the federal sodomy laws overturned.
Nevertheless, for many people, simply paying their fine or doing their time is preferable to embarrassing publicity that can accompany fighting charges. Still, plenty of cases do make the papers, whether those involved want them to or not.
Here are fifteen recent examples highlighting the fact the land of the free, the freedom to express your sexuality can still be pretty limited.
1) Over the past year, New York City has seen thirty-four gay men arrested for prostitution in what many people are calling an anti-gay sting operation. One case, reported by the New York Times, involved Robert Pinter, a fifty-three-year old massage therapist, who was approached by an undercover police officer in the adult section of a video store. As Pinter told the Times, “[the man who propositioned me] was very charming and cute, and we agreed to leave the store and engage in consensual sex.” Pinter explained that man then offered him $50 for doing so--an offer which he says did not respond to. Once outside, Pinter was handcuffed and arrested on charges of, “loitering for the purpose of prostitution.” The relationship between gay men and the police has often been far from harmonious (hell, arrests of gay men in the sixties are what prompted the Stonewall riots in 1969), and this situation has renewed fears that old habits die hard.
2) Despite the fact that Georgia has some real problems with youth sexual health -- among other things it boasts the eighth highest teen pregnancy rate in the country -- this state has put a lot more effort into targeting teens than it has into helping them stay safe. One particularly outlandish case involves a young man named Genarlow Wilson. Genarlow was recently freed after serving almost three years in a Georgia prison. He had been sent there at seventeen for getting a blow job from a consenting fifteen-year-old girl. Though Generlow was only two years older than the girl, in Georgia, he was above the age of consent and she was below it. As a result, the high school senior was charged with aggravated child molestation. At the time, Georgia had a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years for this crime, so that's what he got. A year into his sentence, the law was changed to make the maximum penalty a still pretty serious twelve months in jail. Even so, it took another two years for a judge to order Genarlow's release.
3) Florida is famous for it's liberal views on how little clothing can be considered publicly acceptable. It's not so liberal, however, when it comes to the kind of sex it considers acceptable for people to have privately. In February, a lawsuit was filed against a strip-mall based private swingers club. The charges came after a year-long undercover operation, and despite the sheriff's acknowledgment that, “detectives never found any evidence of drug use or sales and never saw any instances of anyone paying for sex.” Swinging is legal, so in the end, the best the cops could do was charge the club with violation of local zoning codes.
4) Starting off 2009 with a bang, seventeen Pennsylvania teens -- thirteen girls and three boys -- were busted for child pornography. The charges came after a teacher confiscated a student’s cell phone and discovered that the girls had sent “provocative” pictures of themselves to the boys. Initially, the boys were charged with possession of child pornography, and the girls with manufacturing, disseminating and possessing child pornography. These charges could have come with jail time and the requirement to register as sex offenders. The New York Times reports that given such daunting prospects, almost all of the students accepted a deal requiring them to attend a ten hour class dealing with pornography and sexual violence. But three of the girls rejected the deal and instead filed a lawsuit against the district attorney, claiming that offering them such a deal was illegal, as their actions never should have been considered criminal.
Public panic over sexting is growing and as a result the Pennsylvania case is far from an isolated incident. In fact, USA Today reports that between January and March police had already, “investigated more than two dozen teens in at least six states...for sending nude images of themselves in cell phone text messages.” And as a girl busted for sexting in Idaho this June can tell you, that number has surely grown since then.
5) No one has ever claimed that Georgia is a haven for the LGBT community. But a recent decision by a custody judge to bar a gay dad from “exposing” his kids to his “homosexual partners and friends,” is a reminder that in this state, the notion that everyone is equal under the law only applies if the “everyone” in question isn't gay. In this case, the man’s soon to be ex-wife argued that the fact that her kids have a gay dad has landed them in therapy. So she asked that the restriction be imposed to protect them from discomfort. But as the father said, “In general, that [restriction] will never allow me to have my children present in front of any friends, whether they’re gay or straight -- no one hands you a card saying are you gay, straight, heterosexual, bi, whatever.”
6) After his boxers were spotted by cops as he peddled his bike around town, a twenty-four-year-old Bainbridge, Georgia man became the first person arrested there under a new city ordinance that prohibits wearing pants low enough to expose a person’s underwear. Arrests like this have become common all over the country as more and more cities adopt such so-called baggy pants bans. But it isn't only men who are targeted by these laws. This June, the city of Yakima, Washington, voted to change the city's indecent exposure laws to include "cleavage of the buttocks." This means that women whose thong or G-string show can now be fined $1,000 or face up to 90 days in jail. If a child under the age of 14 is thought to be a victim of this form of indecent exposure, the perpetrator is looking at a $5,000 fine and up to a year in jail. Still while most cities choose to focus on legislating visible underwear, some laws take the clothing restrictions even further. For example, an ordinance passed in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana in 2007, not only outlaws “any indecent exposure of any person or undergarments,” but also bars a person from, “dressing in a manner not becoming to his or her sex.”
7) In February 2008, Wisconsin mom, Amy Smalley, was charged with the felony of “exposing a child to harmful descriptions.” The issue came to light after her eleven-year-old son told a counselor about conversations his mom had with him and his brother. These included talking about her sex life, explaining how to perform oral sex and showing the boys a sex toy. The charges, which could have landed Smalley three years in prison, were plead down to a misdemeanor. Smalley was placed on probation and had to undergo court ordered counseling. As the Court TV website put it, “Smalley called it education. Prosecutors called it a crime.” I call it terrifying. As a mom myself, I can easily see having similar conversations. (Okay, not for a while as my kids are only both under three. But still…). Sure, Smalley probably made a bad judgment call. But really, is this any worse than parents who let their kids watch Family Guy and South Park, despite the endless stream of rape jokes and blow job humor?
8) Come 2010, a law designed to protect child prostitutes will take effect in New York State. Until that time, kids as young as twelve can continue to be charged with the crime of prostitution. This is true even if they were forced into the business by pimps. Interestingly, since 2000, foreign-born teens have been protected from prosecution by anti-trafficking laws which view them as victims. For the next year, however, teens with American citizenship may still find themselves in juvie for being the victim of something most people would consider pretty horrific abuse. Hopefully, this is a sign that we are making progress not only the issue of sex work, but on the treatment of juvenile offenders in general.
9) In December, a Florida woman reacted to the penis being forced into her mouth by biting. Twenty-seven-year-old Charris Bowers told police that despite the fact that she didn't want to have oral sex, her husband, Delou pushed himself into her mouth, and that she clamped down to get him to stop. He responded by punching her in the head until she let go. In the end no charges were filed against Delou, even though it is illegal for anyone, including a spouse, to make another person perform a sex act. Charris, on the other hand was arrested and charged with battery. Apparently, the era of blaming the victims of sexual assault is not a thing of the past.
10) That sexual double standards for men and women are alive and well shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. But a Wisconsin town recently showed just how damaging such notions can be. On consecutive January days in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, seventeen-year-old Norma Guthrie and seventeen-year-old Alan Jepsen were charged with sexual assault for having consensual sex with their fourteen-year-old partners. However, that's where the similarities between the cases end. Guthrie was charged with a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum nine months in prison. Jepsen, on the other hand, was charged with a felony, which carries a maximum twenty-five years in prison. The Sheboygan Press reports, “Assistant District Attorney Jim Haasch, who filed both complaints, said the misdemeanor charge was filed in part because Guthrie has no prior criminal record. But online court records show Guthrie has a pending charge of misdemeanor battery, filed in October. Haasch would not say whether Jepsen has a prior juvenile record -- which is typically sealed -- but the boy has no adult charges listed in online court records. Haasch also said the cases are different because Guthrie's boyfriend is “almost 15,” with a birthday in February. Jepsen's girlfriend turns 15 in April.”
11) In December, something called a paramour clause was used to force a lesbian in Tennessee to move out of her house and away from her family. The clause prohibits cohabitation of unmarried partners if minor children are in the home. In this particular situation, the lesbian couple had lived together for over ten years. Much of that was with the biological mom's kids, who were the product of a previous relationship with a man. There was no indication that this living situation was harming the thirteen and fifteen-year-old teens. Nor had the father requested that his ex’s partner move out. Still, a custody judge imposed the rule, leaving few options for the women in a state where same sex couples cannot legally marry. And people wonder why Proposition 8 matters?
12) As a sex ed. teacher, I believe in answering teens’ questions honestly and in using language that they will relate to and understand. So had I overheard a conversation between a New York State high school teacher and some of her students, I probably would have applauded her candor. But I didn't get wind of this conversation. Josephine Isernia’s school board did. According to the board, when asked for advice on oral sex by one of the girls, Isernia used words that were, “vulgar, obscene and disgusting.” The words in question? Head job, hand job, and fellatio. Isernia was a teacher with over twenty years of experience who had never been in trouble before. Yet despite her clean record and the fact that the students sought her out for information, when 2009 rolled around, she was out of a job and educators everywhere were given a sad wake up call.
13) Remember a few years back when PDA policies were making the news every other day? Lately stories about sexting and mom's who pose as teens on MySpace, have been stealing the headlines. But rules regarding public displays of affection never really went away and this February, twenty-two-year-old Jessica Garica was arrested at her local mall for kissing her girlfriend. According to Garcia, mall security told the couple, "This is a family mall, y'all can't do this. Y'all kissed, and if y'all do it again I'm going to write you a citation or I'm going to kick y'all out." The mall countered that after being asked to leave following the kiss, the couple returned and became belligerent. This, a mall spokesperson claimed, and not the kiss, is what lead to the arrest. Regardless, Garcia is considering suing for discrimination.
14) Imagine this: You’re sixteen and having sex with your boyfriend. You want to be safe so you ask your mom to take you to the doctor for birth control. Most people would call this a sign of maturity and responsibility. The state of Mississippi would call it an incident to be reported to the cops. That’s because a bill that passed in January makes it a crime for parents not to report to the police that their kids are having sex. The Mississippi Child Protection Act of 2009, requires mandatory reporting of sex crimes against children and imposes new abortion restrictions on minors. Though there is much to quibble with in the bill, one section is particularly alarming. This is the clause that prohibits, “the intentional toleration of a parent or caretaker of the child's sexual involvement with any other person.” Supporters of the law claim that they are trying to protect young people from abuse. But nowhere does the bill distinguish between sexual abuse and consensual sexual encounters between teens. Mississippi already boasts the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country. Maybe they are striving for the number one spot in preventing parent/child communication, as well...
15) This past November, a convicted sex offender in Oklahoma had little reason to celebrate having his criminal record expunged. That’s because the requirement that he register as a sex offender for life remained. This is particularly problematic seeing as the individual in question is a kid. Due to age of consent laws, he was convicted at sixteen of having consensual sex with a thirteen year-old girl. His mother explains that sex offender status meant the boy was, “removed from high school [and] prohibited from being in the presence of children other than his younger brother. He can't go near schools, day care centers or parks. His brother, age 11, can't bring friends into their home. If his brother had been a girl, Ricky [the offender] would have been removed from his home.” The United States has some of the toughest sex offender laws in the world and Ricky is far from the only teen forced to live under such conditions. As Human Rights Watch reports, “Some children are on registries because they committed serious sex offenses, such as forcibly raping a much younger child. Other children are labeled sex offenders for such non-coercive or nonviolent and age-appropriate activities as “playing doctor,” youthful pranks such as exposing one's buttocks, and non-coercive teen sex.”
There has been talk recently about America’s liberalizing morality. But as long as teens and gay men are still under attack for having sex, and teachers and parents still get in trouble for taking about it, then it would seem as if there is still quite a ways to go before we can claim that this is the dawn of a progressive new era.
Ellen Friedrichs is a sex educator based in New York City, where she teaches high school and college classes.