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Law Cracking Down on Sex Offenders

ALBANY, N.Y. – The clamps are coming down on released sex offenders like never before. But some experts wonder sex offenders are being pushed so far to the fringes that they could actually become more dangerous to society.

Laws restrict where they can live, Web sites list their names, satellites track their steps. Neighbors and bosses force them from their homes and jobs.

The tightening of restrictions around the country comes after several recent slayings of children, allegedly by released sex offenders. The crackdown is aimed at protecting youngsters.

Some researchers and treatment providers say that sex offenders are finding it harder to maintain homes and jobs and establish stable lives for themselves.

“I would rather have someone who has committed a sex offense be going to work every day, come home tired, have a sense of well-being that comes from having a regular paycheck and a safe home, as opposed to having a sex offender who has a lot of free time on his hands,” said Richard Hamill, president of the New York State Alliance of Sex Offender Service Providers. “You tell me: Who is at a greater risk of reoffending?”

Sex offenders have always been pariahs. But it has become harder for them to slip back quietly into communities since states began adopting versions of Megan’s Law a decade ago. The laws, named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was killed by a neighbor in 1994, created public registries of convicted sex offenders.

In a study published this year, researchers surveyed 183 sex offenders in Florida and found 27 percent said they lost a job because a boss or co-workers found out about their crime, 20 percent had to move from their home because a landlord found out, 15 percent had to leave after neighbors complained, and 33 percent were threatened or harassed by neighbors.

“I feel trapped in living where I do,” one of those surveyed said.

Another said: “I welcome an early death.”

Co-author Jill Levenson, a professor at Lynn University in Florida, said “psychosocial stresses” have been linked to repeat offenses among criminals. Advocates fear the recent tightening of restrictions could add to their stress.

Some states now track selected sex offenders by global positioning satellite. After a registered sex offender was accused of killing a 9-year-old girl in Florida, the state passed a law requiring certain child molesters to submit to a lifetime of satellite tracking. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has said she wants state lawmakers to set up 1,000-foot “predator-free zones” around schools.

Earlier this month, Miami Beach, Fla., all but banned child molesters from moving there, adopting an ordinance barring them from living within 2,500 feet of schools, school bus stops, day care centers, parks or playgrounds.

A Houston-based company started offering subscribers “sex offender movement alerts” sent to their cell phones or e-mail to keep track of registered offenders in California, Texas and Florida. Six Flags announced it reserves the right to keep sex offenders out of its amusement parks.

Is it going too far?

Maureen Kanka, who became an advocate for Megan’s Laws after her daughter’s slaying, said she sees the value in a balanced approach to dealing with sex offenders that includes treatment. But she said that providing information about offenders’ whereabouts – whether through registries or tracking devices – should be the No. 1 priority.

“We have to provide that safety net for the public,” she said.

Christopher Uggen, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, noted that “sex offender” is a broad term that can include both a child molester and an 18-year-old with a 15-year-old girlfriend.

Uggen and Levenson said sweeping laws that treat all classes of offenders equally might not be the best way to protect the public. Limited public dollars would be better spent on targeting the most dangerous offenders, Levenson said.

“I don’t think that we really earn that much with these blanket, one-size-fits-all policies,” Levenson said. “They’re going to be over-inclusive in some ways and not enough in other ways.”


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