Sex offender surveillance

Legislation proposes "civil confinement" and bans offenders from most public spaces.

Published March 2, 2007 12:11AM (EST)

It's turning out to be a bumper year for legislative innovations aimed at sex offenders. After many towns -- including most recently Algoma, Wisconsin -- passed laws barring sex offenders from moving within 2,000 feet of a church, school playground, day care or walking trail (carefully written to cover as much of the entire town as possible), some states are trying to craft their own solutions to the problem that has no prison sentence. Since some sex offenders are both considered criminals (who are subject to prison terms that end) and mentally insane people who can never be cured or reformed, it's become a hot political challenge for any politician promising to make their communities safe.

To that end, New York is proposing to keep some sex offenders in "civil confinement" -- that is, locked up beyond their prison sentences in psychiatric hospitals. According to the Associated Press, New York is joining more than a dozen states which allow targeted sex offenders to be held beyond their prison terms. Like many of these laws, New York's attempt to identity those offenders whose psychological profiles make them appear likely to offend again. On a case by case basis, I might agree, but the law seems to set up a dangerous precedent in which the state has the right to unofficially extend inmate's prison sentences.

Equally unsettling is a new law proposed by Ohio lawmakers, also reported by AP, that would require the cars of habitual and child-oriented sex offenders to carry special florescent green license plates. Not surprisingly, the ACLU objects, but they've spun it that such license plates would give children an unrealistic sense of safety when approaching cars with regular license plates. What's interesting about this idea is that it's not the first instance of using license plates to identify dangerous behavior in Ohio: already repeat drunken drivers are required to display bright yellow license tags. But because drunken driving is actually related to driving behavior, it makes somewhat more sense.

And yet I have to admit, as a mother, these laws do hold a certain appeal. Who doesn't want to warn their children: "Look out for the green plates!!!" But in the end, it's hard to see how the license plate laws aren't the equivalent to a massive mobile scarlet letter which might unfairly reflect on people beyond the sex offender. What if the sex offender shares a car with a spouse or has children? Do they deserve the stigma as well? By the same token, it seems like a smart sexual offender could easily avoid the exposure by walking, taking the bus or renting a car. When you think about it, the only surefire notification law would entail a modern version of an embroidered letter: a forehead tattoo.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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