Dr. Fred Berlin With the arrests of two men with records of sex offenses in the recent killing of two young girls in Florida, legislators in that state are taking action.
A bill that would give anyone convicted of molesting a child younger than 12 a minimum 25-year sentence and a lifetime of wearing a global positioning system tracking device is moving quickly toward law.
To some, such sweeping legislative action should not be taken in the heated aftermath of the killings.
"I don't know if you want to be having these conversations in the context of the horrible crimes that occurred in Florida," says Dr. Fred Berlin, associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who founded the Sexual Disorder Clinic there.
"It is terribly important to keep in mind that kidnapping, rape and murder represents less than a fraction of one percent of the problem of child sexual abuse," he says. "We are really talking about the exception. In this context, we ought to be talking about the rule."
But to others, this is a conversation that doesn't happen unless it is driven by events like those in Florida - the rape and killing of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in February and last month's killing of Sara Lunde, 13.
"It is without question a reactive approach," says Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law, who backs the Florida legislation. "Unfortunately, that is the way lawmakers respond. When you try to pass proactive measures, political game-playing gets in the way."
Indeed, the law that gave its name to Ahearn's group was a reactive measure. In 1994, Megan Kanka, 7, was raped and killed by a convicted pedophile.
Her death led to Megan's Laws, first in New Jersey where she lived, then in other states and, in 1996, at the federal level. Those laws require sex offenders to register with state authorities. In most states, including Maryland and Florida, names, addresses and photographs of those registered are available online.
Legislators in Florida have called their new proposal the Jessica Lunsford Act. Her accused killer, John E. Couey, is a registered sex offender who did not notify authorities when he moved into Jessica's neighborhood.
Couey's record includes an indecent exposure charge and a 1991 arrest for fondling a child under age 16, though reports say it is unclear how that case was resolved.
David Onstott, charged in the killing of Sara Lunde, was also a registered sex offender, convicted of raping an adult. Police said he had once dated Sara's mother and was looking for her when he got into an argument with Sara and she was killed.
In Miami Beach, Mayor David Dermer responded by proposing buffer zones between schools, parks, school-bus stops or "places where children regularly congregate" and areas where registered sex offenders are allowed to live. That would mean that virtually the entire city would be off-limits to those on the state list.
In other parts of the state, pickets have shown up at the houses of those on the registry. Fliers were handed out in other neighborhoods to warn of the presence of a sex offender.
What bothers Berlin is that terms like "sex offender" and "sexual predator" get thrown around as if all who have such convictions on their records are the same.
"People act as if one glove fits all," he says. "But the majority of sex offenders are not dangerous strangers. The majority are not physically violent."
Yet these are the incidents that lead to lawmakers taking action - and communities taking up picket signs.
"Overall, the vast majority of child sexual abuse is not perpetrated by strangers but by close family members and caretakers," says Jana Singer, who teaches family and juvenile law at the University of Maryland School of Law. "But it does seem to be the case that those perpetrated by strangers get the most publicity and generate the largest responses, particularly legislative.
"If the idea is to try to enact legislation that will do the most good for the most children, this may not be the best place to concentrate the effort," she says. "But when terrible things happen, the temptation for legislators to do something is great."
Berlin argues that laws calling for draconian punishments can backfire, making family members reluctant to report abuse by a relative.
Ahearn says such fears are overblown, in large part because convictions for sex abuse represent such a small part of the problem.
"The cases in court are just the tip of a huge iceberg," she says. "You have to work hard to be convicted for a sex offense. Most of the cases are being pleaded out. The criminal justice system is not set up to handle them."
Ahearn says statistics indicate that 90 percent of sexual abuse goes unreported, and that a perpetrator who does end up in court for a single incident has, on average, abused large numbers of children before that arrest.
"The positive effect of stricter sentences is that it is sending the message of zero tolerance for sex offenders," she says.