A scarlet letter for sex offenders

April 06, 1995|By Patrick Ercolano

A LEGISLATIVE trend sweeping the United States is the push for bills that would enable people to know when a convicted sex offender has moved into their neighborhood.

Since Washington state began the movement in 1990 with its Community Protection Act, about 40 other states have followed with their own versions. Most are limited to government-maintained registers of offenders.

Five states have detailed notification laws. In Washington, for instance, handbills bearing the photographs and records of sex offenders are distributed by police in areas where the offenders have recently settled.

Louisiana can force offenders to wear designated articles of clothing, sends mailings about their crimes to neighbors and marks their cars with stickers that indicate their histories. Offenders in Oregon can be made to place signs reading "Sexual Offender Residence" in the windows of their homes.

Congress gave a big boost to this trend last year with a crime bill provision that would withhold federal funds from states that fail to register sex offenders and devise public notification systems.

The issue also drew attention last summer after the rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka. The assailant of the Hamilton Township, N.J., girl was a neighbor who had already served time tTC for attempted sexual assault of a child. The New Jersey legislature responded with a package of registration and notification bills collectively known as "Megan's Law."

Now Maryland is getting in line. Last month the state Senate unanimously passed a bill that would register convicted child molesters and require them to disclose publicly that they intend to move to a particular neighborhood. A House of Delegates measure, which received only one negative vote out of 133 cast, would create a lifetime register of child molesters. It also would set up a listing of people who have sexually attacked adults, to last 10 years after each offender's release from prison.

Unlike the Senate bill, the House measure would not force offenders to divulge their housing plans. Citizens would be free, however, to consult the roster of convicted offenders. (With less than a week left in this year's legislative session, it remains unclear what action the full General Assembly will take on these proposals.)

You don't have to be a parent to appreciate the good intentions of these measures. Even prison inmates are said to have a special contempt for people who have been jailed for abusing children. It is heinous when some twisted soul vents his anger at the world on an innocent young boy or girl.

But as with other legislation wrought largely from emotion, serious questions have been raised about the legality and the effectiveness of sex offender bills.

State and federal courts across the country have been tied up with related cases. Five weeks ago, a federal judge in New Jersey ruled the state law requiring public notification amounts to double jeopardy and is therefore unconstitutional. Two federal court challenges linked to "Megan's Law" also are pending in New Jersey, as well as three similar cases in state courts, including one scheduled to be heard next month by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Clearly there are gaping legal holes in the proposals, particularly the notification laws. In addition to the double jeopardy issue, there is concern that the measures discriminate against one type of criminal. Do we next apply registration and notification requirements to convicted murderers and arsonists? Then to "lesser" criminals or people with AIDS? Also troubling is the fact that some of the laws don't discern between the serial rapist and the flasher.

Proponents of the laws point out, with some validity, that sex offenders are unique in that many inherently lack the capacity to be "cured," as a repentant killer might be. Studies nonetheless show a significantly lower rate of recidivism among sex offenders who have received intensive therapy. The problem is that such therapy is not often available to offenders.

The notification laws raise worries about vigilantism, too. Earlier this year in New Jersey, a father-and-son duo went to the home of an offender whose address had been made public. They broke in and beat an innocent man who happened to be staying at the house. In Washington, the family home of a rapist was burned down by angry neighbors who had heard he was about to be released from prison.

Moreover, experts on sexual assault fear that the focus on dangerous strangers ignores the fact that most molestations and rapes, of both minors and adults, are committed by relatives and acquaintances of the victims. The experts further note that for every sex offender who has been convicted, many others have never been caught.

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