Lawmakers crusade against molesters
By Mark Matthews, Staff Writer
For many state lawmakers, almost no penalty is too harsh for sex offenders who hurt children.
Eight states allow castration. At least a dozen track molesters by satellite once they've served their prison terms. In Florida last year, lawmakers made it easier to execute sexual predators who are guilty of murder.
Life could become even tougher for sex offenders in 2006. Already, lawmakers from New York to Washington state have submitted scores of bills designed to protect children and punish those who sexually abuse them. The flood of new laws stands out as a trend sweeping statehouses, but it can't be explained by any single development.
Last year, state lawmakers passed more than 100 sex offender laws — double the number of 2004 and "far and above previous years," said Blake Harrison, a political researcher for the National Conference of State Legislatures, based in Denver and Washington D.C.
Among the most popular measures — expected to spread this year — is a law authorizing use of satellites to track released sex offenders.
Twelve states now allow Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to track offenders: California, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee, according to NCSL. Iowa also requires electronic monitoring of released offenders, though not specifically GPS.
Kansas is one of the states considering GPS tracking this year. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) made it a key point of her State of the State address.
"I want to require all repeat sex offenders (to) wear electronic tracking devices — for the rest of their lives. These tracking bracelets will allow law enforcement officers to monitor their locations at all times. I've put money for this in my budget because, again, it's just common sense," Sebelius said.
Harrison, of NCSL, said the availability of improved technology is one reason for the marked increase in bills cracking down on sex offenders.
Jessica Lunsford is another. Last year, the 9-year-old Florida girl was killed by a registered sex offender who lived nearby. Within months, Florida legislators drafted a harsh response, calling for mandatory sentences of 25 years for the worst molesters, satellite tracking upon release and the possibility of a death sentence for predators who kill.
Lunsford's death and Florida's response inspired copycat legislation last year in a handful of other states, such as Missouri and Oklahoma, and is the basis of at least a half-dozen measures this year.
"Very often, there is a case that catches the nation's attention, and, as a result, legislators start to pay attention. Now nearly every state is considering the implementation of Jessica's Law," said Susan Broderick, a senior attorney with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse.
Among those states is Georgia, where Lunsford's accused murderer was arrested. State Rep. Jerry Keen (R), majority leader of the Georgia House, said his bill was styled after Florida's law and was co-signed by 75 House members when it was introduced.
"We want to make it so tough, that they (sex offenders) are not going to live in Georgia once they are released," Keen said. When asked where sex offenders then would go, he responded: "I'm a state legislator from Georgia. What Alabama, Tennessee and other states do is up to them."
Indeed, sex offender laws can vary greatly between states. One of the biggest differences centers on whether a state has the authority to put sex offenders in mental hospitals once they've been released from prison.
Kansas was among the first states to try the idea, and a successful 1997 defense of the law before the U.S. Supreme Court — in the case Kansas v. Hendricks — encouraged at least 16 states to pass similar laws.
The post-prison confinement has angered both mental health experts and civil liberties advocates, and the issue created a stir in the Northeast last year when Republican Govs. George Pataki of New York and Donald Carcieri of Rhode Island abruptly ordered sex offenders sent to mental hospitals after their prison terms expired.
In their struggle to deal with the country's estimated 560,000 registered sex offenders , states also are trying other strategies. Last year, New York legislators barred sex offenders from operating ice cream trucks. California has stopped them from running massage parlors. And this year, Kansas legislators are proposing giving sex offenders distinctive pink license plates.
Meanwhile, federal officials have been trying to compile the sex offender registries of every state since last summer. Officials from the U.S. Department of Justice said only two states — Oregon and South Dakota - aren't yet linked but are expected to join.
There is little consensus about what is causing the sharp increase in sex offender laws, and even some question about how helpful it will be.
Besides better technology and the high-profile cases of child murders, researchers suggest the Catholic clergy abuse scandal brought more attention to these problems and that sex offenders jailed under softer laws are now getting out, raising alarm.
David Finkelhor, with the Crimes Against Children Research Center in New Hampshire, contends the increase in laws goes against a steady drop in sex abuse cases for most of the last decade.
According to Finkelhor's research, which analyzed state-by-state figures from child protection agencies, the rate of substantiated sex abuse cases fell about 40 percent since the early 1990s. He cites figures that show a peak of an estimated 150,000 sex abuse cases in 1992, dropping to about 90,000 cases in 2003.
His numbers, though, aren't universally accepted as the trend.
Broderick, whose think tank deals with crimes against children, said sex offenses are difficult to track because the attacker is most likely to be an acquaintance or family member.
A former Manhattan prosecutor, she warned that mandatory minimum sentences for sex offenders could backfire because prosecutors would find it harder to obtain guilty pleas from defendants, who often know the child they assaulted.
If the child won't testify in court, or the jury is unwilling to send someone to prison for 25 years on anything but solid evidence, many sex offenders could go free, she said. "It can lead to some really bad consequences," she said.