Friday, February 12, 2010

MD Sex Offender Legislation Would Go Too Far Sex offender legislation would go too far.

The Christmastime tragedy of Sarah Foxwell has inspired politicians in Maryland to put forth an astounding number (55 at last count) of bill proposals targeting sex offenders. Although many are duplicative, the effect of even a small number of these, should they become law, would be utterly devastating to the many, many former offenders (and their families) living and trying to be productive citizens in our state.

Many former offenders who are not now required to register would find themselves on the list, and make no mistake, public sex offender registration is a terrible burden that renders registrants virtually unemployable, destroys families and does at least as much to threaten public safety as it does to promote it.

Separate studies by Dr. Jill Levenson and the states of New York and New Jersey illustrate both the terrible harm to families and the futility of public registration for former offenders. More importantly, none of the proposed changes to the sex offender laws currently in place would effectively address what happened to Sarah or prevent similar tragedies from happening to other children.

Sarah's story is horrific. There is no question that her kidnapping and death, for which a registered sex offender now faces charges, is a nightmare for her family and a terrible loss to the community, and perhaps the knee-jerk response of our elected officials is understandable, but is it wise? The man accused of Sarah's murder was known to her and to her family, as is the case in well over 90 percent of child sexual abuse. He was not a stranger who snatched her off the street. He was not a predatory neighbor with a hidden past lurking in the shadows. He was not unknown to local law enforcement. How, then, did this happen?

Was Sarah's killer being adequately supervised? Were those charged with his supervision able to devote appropriate time and resources to his case? Or were they spending their time monitoring those who pose little or no threat? He was "compliant" with the reporting requirements of the registry; was he also compliant with treatment, which might have done far more to address his true risk than supplying information for what has become a bloated and useless list of names? Was treatment even ordered for this man?

But never mind. We've been told that registration for sex offenders is for the good of the children, that it is somehow a panacea for an enormously complex problem. So, this man's registration was public. Sarah's family has said they knew about his history. That knowledge didn't keep Sarah safe. Perhaps due diligence both by those charged with protecting Sarah and those who were supposed to be supervising her killer may have prevented her death. We will never know, and I have deep sympathy for those who have to live wondering if they should have done something else, something more, because certainly there were red flags.

This man had a history of repeat offenses against children. Any reasonable person would conclude that such a history would make him high risk to re-offend, unlike the overwhelming majority of registered sex offenders. That is the fallacy of registration laws. Registration does not, never has, and never will, have anything at all to do with reducing risk of re-offending. Yet, our response to her death is more registration?

In fact, registration of so many very low risk offenders, those who are first-time, non-violent, non-contact offenders, for example, or "Romeo and Juliet" offenders, or those whose offenses were many years ago and who have not re-offended, renders the registry far less useful as a tool for parents and law enforcement. Tightening registration, expanding the list, lengthening the term of registration, and imposing residency restrictions and public notification requirements, as has been proposed in the legislature, will only bloat the registry even more. It will make it harder for former offenders who pose little or no risk to reintegrate into society, expose them and their families to serious risk of harm at the hands of those who misuse registry information to harass, threaten and even kill registrants, and cost the state money that would be far better spent on closer supervision of the truly predatory.

The Maryland legislature needs to think again before it responds to this senseless tragedy with knee-jerk, feel-good laws that would not have saved Sarah and will not protect other children from a similar fate.