Monday, November 17, 2008

TX: Restrictions Unfair to Low-Level Sex Offenders

DallasNews: Restrictions Unfair to Low-Level Sex Offenders.

It's called Condition X: tough restrictions on the way some criminals, mostly paroled sex offenders, must live once they're out of prison. Condition X determines the minutiae of their daily lives – whether they can visit a school or attend church; whether they can live with their families or in an apartment with a swimming pool; whether they can access the Internet, work at a convenience store, even whom they can date or marry.

But a growing number of offenders are fighting back against the strict limits, which they say are most often imposed without a fair hearing, and treat low-level offenders and violent predators alike.

"I'm not at war trying to defend sex offenders," said attorney Bill Habern, who has scored several incremental victories in court against how Condition X is imposed. "I'm at war trying to protect our Constitution."

The current system is unfair to low-level offenders such as young people who had consensual sex with minors, said Mary Sue Molnar, co-founder of Texas Voices, a new organization devoted to changing sex offender laws.

Matter of due process

Ms. Molnar and others say they're not championing pedophiles or rapists. But when someone has consensual sex with an older teen, "it is not as serious a crime as someone who has fondled a 6-year-old," she said.
That distinction is one reason Mr. Habern and attorney Richard Gladden are determined to force state officials to give parolees more due process. And though their efforts mostly have been rebuffed by state judges, they're gaining some traction in federal courts:

• In 2004, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "Condition X" can't be imposed on parolees who haven't been convicted of a sex offense, without an "appropriate hearing."

• In 2006, the Texas parole board quit automatically denying sex offenders access to their own children, after a lawsuit claimed the board did not give a parolee notice or a hearing.

• Earlier this year, federal Judge Sam Sparks in Austin expressed "grave concerns over the fundamental fairness" of such parole board hearings and commented that the Texas attorney general's office, which represents state agencies, "has apparently failed to take such constitutional challenges seriously."

Condition X is imposed on almost all paroled sex offenders, from those who had consensual sex with an underage teen to violent pedophiles. In some instances, sex offender conditions are even imposed on offenders who don't have a conviction for a sex crime, but whose offense included a sexual aspect. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, about 90 percent of paroled sex offenders have Condition X imposed on them.