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Rethinking Sex Offender Laws a Tough Sell

DAVID CRARY, The Associated Press, April 19 2006

The killings of two men listed on Maine's Internet sex offender registry may offer a grim lesson about the consequences of such registry laws, but defense lawyers and crime researchers question whether a thoughtful national debate on the subject is possible.

In a climate where politicians seek ever-tougher punishment and ostracism of sex offenders, they say, few are willing to examine the fairness and risks of registry requirements. 

"We've basically dehumanized these people with words such as 'predator,'" said psychiatrist Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic in Baltimore. "Every decent human being wants to protect children," he said, 

but even suggesting that criminals who have done their time are entitled to rebuild their
lives can tarnish a politician.

"It's close to heresy," Berlin said.

Every state has an online registry with photographs and personal information about convicted sex  
offenders, often to be posted for at least 20 years and sometimes for life. Many states, including Maine, provide offenders' exact street address; that information apparently was used by a Nova Scotia man to locate and fatally shoot two registered sex offenders Sunday.

There have been many cases of vigilantism in the past, ranging from harassment and arson to the 
slayings of two convicted child rapists in Washington state. A man mistaken for his sex-offender brother was nearly beaten to death with a baseball bat in New Jersey -- the state where the 1994 killing of 7-year-old Megan Kanka by a neighbor gave rise to the nationwide trend of "Megan's Law" registries.

Though they decry vigilantism, police, prosecutors and politicians overwhelmingly support the laws. 

Maine is maintaining its online registry despite the shootings; the governors of nearby Vermont and New Hampshire rejected appeals by their states' American Civil Liberties Union branches to eliminate the online databases.

James Backstrom, a board member of the National District Attorneys Association and chief prosecutor in Minnesota's Dakota County, said the registries 

"are appropriate and needed."
"The victims of crime and the public in general have a right to know where sex offenders are living," he said.

Backstrom acknowledged, however, that the registries contribute to a serious problem facing Minnesota and other states: Because virtually no one wants sex offenders in their neighborhood, they have difficulty finding an appropriate place to live.

That problem has become particularly severe in states where many towns forbid registered offenders from living near schools, parks and other facilities, said New Jersey defense attorney William Buckman. 

"We're essentially seeing people forced into refugee status," said Buckman, a board member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "The experts say the major thing in preventing recidivism is to allow offenders to rebuild their lives, put down roots. But because of feel-good, poorly thought-out, knee-jerk reactions by politicians, the effect is to increase recidivism."

Those advocating reconsideration of sex offender laws aren't suggesting that authorities back away from vigilant monitoring. They note that some states have developed sophisticated risk-assessment systems for deciding which offenders are listed in publicly available registries, so the whereabouts of high-risk offenders are known while lesser risks are granted more anonymity. 

"I'm the first to say, 'Lock up the harmful sexual offenders,'" said Nancy Sabin, who heads a Minnesota-based victims advocacy group called the Jacob Wetterling Foundation.

But not all offenders fall into that category, she

"We need to step back, take a breath and get more educated about the most effective ways to deal with the issue."

In Missouri, the state Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on one of the few major legal challenges to a registry system. A class action suit contends the state law is applied too broadly and unfairly punishes those who pose little risk -- such as a woman who had consensual sex with a 15-year-old boy when she was 20, and a man classified as a child abuser because he spanked his son with a belt. 

"All these draconian Sex Offender Registry Acts need to be trimmed back -- eliminating people who never should have been on in the first place," said Arthur Benson, the lawyer handling the lawsuit. 

Jill Levinson, a professor and sex-crimes researcher at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., said the recidivism rate for sex offenders is lower than for most other serious crimes. She urged legislatures to tailor laws so low-risk offenders have the maximum opportunity to rehabilitate themselves.

"The intentions are good," she said, "but there's very little evidence that these registries improve community safety or protect children."

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