Tuesday, December 9, 2008

More Harm Than Good

NewsObserver.com (North Carolina) : More harm than good - Attempts to strengthen laws against sexual offenders have unintended consequences. Prevention would be better.

North Carolina's intentions to further protect communities by strengthening the state's laws against sexual offenders will do very little to keep people safer, ineffectively target people who are least likely to reoffend and ultimately may increase the chances that the most troubled offenders will recommit sexual crimes.

Although only one state lawmaker voted against these tighter restrictions, other legislative members should examine the research more closely and revisit such laws in the next session.

The state's legal clampdown -- aimed at bringing North Carolina into compliance with the federal Adam Walsh Act -- went into effect Dec. 1. Among the new requirements: that people who commit certain sex offenses remain on the state's offender registry for 30 years, triple the previous length of time. Offenders must also now report a change of address to their local sheriff's department within three business days and stay at least 300 feet away from any place where minors might gather, including malls, childcare centers and churches.

Registration and notification laws were intended to encourage citizens to be proactive in protecting themselves as well as provide law enforcement with a ready pool of suspects when a sex crime is reported.

However, independent research from Marquette University and the University of Alabama has shown that these laws do little to prevent sexual crimes or mobilize citizens into action. Instead, there is evidence that they limit an offender's ability to put treatment skills to use and make it that much more difficult to successfully integrate back into society, as well as find housing and employment.

In an additional study out of Marquette University, researchers found that family members who were unconnected to the original crime are also harassed, including receiving death threats.

Even supporters of Jacob's Law, the first federal act requiring sex offender registration, have raised concerns about the legal restrictions. Among them is Patty Wetterling, the mother of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old Minnesota boy who was kidnapped years ago and still missing and for whom the offender registration law was named. Wetterling and her husband co-founded the Jacob Wetterling Foundation -- now the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center -- which works to prevent sexual violence.

In a 2007 article for Human Rights Watch, Wetterling spoke out about the repercussions of the current attitudes toward sex offenders and the laws created as a result of those feelings. She cited research that showed that many of the laws may not prevent sexual attacks but instead invite the public to harass, ostracize and even commit violence against sex offenders, all of which affects their efforts to turn their lives around. Such experiences may also encourage offenders to further isolate themselves and may actually increase the chances that they will repeat their crimes. These findings are consistent with other previously cited research.

Additionally, current laws do not address the individuals who are at the greatest risk of committing a sexual offense, namely family members. According to a study from the U.S. Department of Justice, only 3 percent of children under the age of 6 who have been sexually assaulted were assaulted by strangers; most were assaulted by family members or someone known to the child.