Kansas City InfoZine and Stateline.org ( 19 April 2008) - From California to North Carolina, a flood of litigation has accompanied an expansion in the scope and severity of penalties imposed by local, state and federal lawmakers on those who commit sex crimes.
Penalties for molesters and other sex criminals have toughened considerably in recent years and now include execution in at least five states, chemical castration in eight states and the use of technology to monitor offenders' every move in more than half the states.
In some instances, punitive measures are limited only by lawmakers' imaginations. In Louisiana, for example, a proposal being debated this legislative session would forbid offenders from wearing masks on Halloween or Mardi Gras. In New Jersey, a new state law prevents molesters and others from surfing the Internet unless it is for work-related purposes; Florida and Nevada have similar laws.
The recent legal challenges take aim at laws that sex criminals say violate constitutional guarantees, including privacy, due process and protection from cruel and unusual punishment.
In Georgia and Ohio, sex criminals have successfully challenged residency restrictions that forbid them from living within 1,000 feet of schools or other common gathering places for children. California's highest court also is considering whether to strike down zoning laws that could make huge swaths of the state off-limits to offenders.
In Missouri's Supreme Court, a convicted sex offender is challenging aspects of the state's practice of "civil confinement," which has allowed him to be held indefinitely in a treatment program for a crime he committed in 1983 and for which he finished serving time years ago. More than 20 states allow civil confinement after it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in separate decisions in 1997 and 2002.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, meanwhile, is preparing to hear arguments on the constitutionality of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, a wide-reaching federal law that requires all states to dramatically toughen penalties for sex criminals by July of next year, or risk losing funding from a congressional grant program. A trial judge ruled against parts of the law last year.
A broad spectrum of critics - including civil-rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, law enforcers, prosecuting attorneys and even some victims' assistance groups - has criticized some of the recent local, state and federal laws aimed at sex criminals.
Many say the laws are more about political opportunism than public safety. Elected officials recognize that they can appeal to voters by piling up penalties on a widely detested criminal population that has few advocates willing to stand up for its rights, critics say.
"It's still an easy, no-lose-politically situation," said Corey Rayburn Yung, a professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago and author of a blog, Sex Crimes, that reports on trends in sex-offender legislation.
Meanwhile, the federal Adam Walsh Act is likely to face more litigation than any other statute because of its breadth. The law requires some juvenile offenders as young as 14 to be included in online registries and retroactively applies new registration requirements to offenders who have been out of prison for years.
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