Sunday, December 7, 2008

AdvocatesTake Aim at Registry, Rules

Maryland Daily Record: Advocates for sex offenders take aim at registry, other rules.

Elected officials and victims’ advocates say tough sex-offender laws are necessary to protect society from dangerous criminals. But some offenders and their relatives, like Kennedy, see the restrictions as overly intrusive and unnecessary. Her husband has served his time and is a danger to no one, Kennedy argues.

“In Salem, they had a witch-hunt, and in America, we’re still having a witch-hunt, and the witch-hunt is just different,” said Kennedy, a Parsonsburg nurse. “It’s the sex offender.”
Kennedy runs a blog called Sex Offenders and Their Wives, where she vents about the difficulties of living with sex-offender restrictions and debunks what she said are myths about offenders, like the high probability that they will re-offend and their imperviousness to treatment.

She also heads the Maryland chapter of the national group Reform Sex Offender Laws. (ConstitutionalFights is the Ohio Affiliate for RSOL)

She started reading about sex offender laws on the Internet and found that lots of offenders, their family members and some advocacy groups agreed the restrictions had gone too far.

Human Rights Watch released a study last year arguing that registration laws are overbroad, that registries have led to violence and harassment against registrants, and that residency restrictions “banish offenders from entire urban areas.”

Like Sandy Kennedy’s blog, offender-advocacy Web sites argue that the majority of registered sex offenders are not monsters who repeatedly kidnap and rape children — or, as Baltimore criminal defense lawyer Thomas P. Bernier put it, “some lecherous guy pulling 10-year-olds into a van.”

Many don’t pose a continuing threat to children, Bernier said; some never did in the first place.

Challenging the premise

Recent studies have shown that, at most, 20 percent to 30 percent re-offend, a lower rate of recidivism than other criminals, he said. (Actually it is under 10% - see our post on Federal Justice Department Statistics)

“There are these evil people,” said Pavlinic, who specializes in defending accused child molesters. “Those are violent sexual predators, people from whom the public has to be protected. There are a lot of people who have in the course of their life simply made a mistake, either with their own children or because of the age difference.” They “get treatment and then they never do it again,” he said.

Sandy Kennedy suggested that the government register criminals with a higher risk of recidivism, like drug dealers. She said she is not opposed to all sex offender restrictions, just the pointless ones.

Opposing the registries

“Safe,” though, was not what Sandy Kennedy felt when a local newspaper published her husband’s name.
Vigilantism is one reason some activists oppose putting offenders’ identifying information, including pictures, on Internet registries.

Paul Shannon, a founder of Reform Sex Offender Laws, said registries encourage people to target sex offenders, citing the 2006 murder of two Maine offenders by someone who found their names online. (Shannon would like to see public registries abolished; information about truly dangerous criminals should be shared among law enforcement officials, who would decide whether to alert the community.)

One of the men killed in Maine had served time for having otherwise consensual sex with his girlfriend when he was 19 and she was a few days shy of 16. “Virtually all adolescent sexuality is now criminalized,” said Shannon, who said he is not an offender or ex-offender, just a civil liberties advocate. “This is a serious attack on children and their right to grow up.”

ABC reporter John Stossel did a series earlier this year on offender laws gone overboard; among other people, he featured a man who had, had sex with his girlfriend when he was 19 and she was 15. Twelve years later, they are married with four children, but he must still register as a sex offender.

He said sex offenders have begun pushing back against the regulations but haven’t gotten much traction.
“Who wants to be the guy who wants to be known as out in [the] legislature championing sex offenders?” Bernier said.

Freedom to fight

Shannon, the national organization’s founder, said it’s typical for women who are close to sex offenders to advocate on their behalf. The offenders themselves don’t necessarily want to call more attention to themselves, he said. Though Kennedy worries about her safety and that of her husband, she said she needs to speak publicly in order to bring change.

“I figure he’s on the registry; how much more visible can you get?” she said. “I felt that if we didn’t want publicity, that we won’t be able to change the way things are. We were trying to keep a low [profile], not being public,” she said, “until he registered and they kind of gave us the freedom to go on out and make it known, and fight some of the injustices.”