No punishment too severe?

States are enacting stricter penalties for convicted sex offenders, but some restrictions may have unintended consequences.

Published October 31, 2006 2:00PM (EST)

From a rhetorical standpoint, it's easy to agree that convicted sex offenders deserve severe punishments, and that it's in society's interest to prevent predators from targeting children by any means necessary. But when we move from the rhetorical to the practical, it's not clear what general terms like "severe punishments" and "by any means necessary" should actually mean. These days, some states' severe punishments include not only lengthy prison terms and extended parole but chemical castration, mandatory monitoring devices and restrictions on where offenders may legally live once they're released. Next week, California voters will consider Proposition 83, a ballot measure that would, among other things, prohibit registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school and require lifelong satellite monitoring for felony offenders. And the Los Angeles Times is assessing whether harsh penalties are worth their costs to society and to the offenders themselves.

The Times' implied answer seems to be no. Monitoring requirements place a heavy burden on law enforcement, taxing police resources and potentially diverting focus away from other crimes. There's little evidence that severe measures like residential restrictions actually prevent recidivism, and some say they may actually give parents a false sense of security. Because minors are most often assaulted by people they know -- the Times notes that "strangers are responsible for only about 10 percent of sexual attacks on minors" -- residency requirements may not address the real problem. (As one registered sex offender grimly notes, "Does telling a sex offender where he can or can't live make a difference? No. All somebody's got to do is get in their car and drive someplace.") And California's Prop. 83 would apply to offenders who assaulted adults as well as those who preyed on children; the prohibition against living near a school makes less sense in this context.

Restrictions may also have unintended effects. In Iowa, which has similarly strict rules for where offenders can live, "Prosecutors, police officials and even victims rights groups say the crackdown has backfired, driving some offenders into rural towns and leaving others grouped at motels, campgrounds, freeway rest stops or on the streets," the Times reports. "Many have simply gone underground, authorities say, with more than twice as many registered sex offenders now considered missing than before the law took effect." The density of urban areas makes it much harder for offenders to find places to live in cities; for that reason, some rural lawmakers worry about de facto "predator dumping" in rural areas. And some argue that being separated from friends and family makes offenders more likely to re-offend -- and because residential restrictions can prevent offenders from living in nursing homes, veterans hospitals and homeless shelters, some literally end up roaming the streets.

Trouble is, legislation targeting sex offenders is a real gimme in election season; Iowa Sen. Larry McKibben isn't thrilled with the state's current law, but told the Times, "We live in a nasty political environment, and I certainly wouldn't have wanted to take a vote that somebody could turn into a direct mail piece saying I was going soft on sex offenders." In California, both Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Democratic challenger, Phil Angelides, support Prop. 83.

When assessing potentially faulty restrictive measures like Prop. 83, an important thing to keep in mind is that holding out for more practical, carefully crafted laws is not the same as giving convicted offenders a free pass. But with an emotionally charged issue like attacks on children, it can be especially hard to separate the scare tactics from the useful legislation. A recent poll on Prop. 83 showed that three-quarters of likely voters support the measure.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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