The imagined security of more sex offender laws

October 2, 2005

The pressure is on for state lawmakers to do something – anything – to
answer renewed fears about sex offenders living in our midst. The push
stems from the story of Shasta Groene – the Idaho girl kidnapped
allegedly by a sex offender who murdered her family. The suspect, former
Lakewood resident Joseph Duncan, was convicted of sexually assaulting a
14-year-old Tacoma boy in 1980.

The case has spurred a new drive to track and segregate sex offenders in
the hopes that it will keep them from finding new victims. Three months
before Washington’s legislative session begins, the onslaught of bills
has already begun. They include proposals to keep sex offenders from
living in certain neighborhoods and to track them using GPS technology.

Sponsors have the right motive, but their legislation would make a
dangerous brew, lulling people into complacency while blunting the
protections already in place.

The common thread running through the proposals is an attempt to deliver
a sense of safety, if not actual safety. Some members of a state task
force on sex offender management admitted as much last week. “People
don’t necessarily want statistical analysis. They want security for their
children – real or imagined,” said state Rep. Jim Clements (R-Selah).

Washington already is a leader in the nation for dealing aggressively
with sex offenders. Many of the laws on the books were adopted in 1990
after the vicious sexual mutilation and near-murder of a 7-year-old child
in Tacoma. The changes then and others that followed filled gaps that
allowed sex offenders to strike again and left communities defenseless.

The results of a recent study suggest existing laws are having their
intended effect, either by keeping offenders in prison longer or making
it harder for them to find new victims.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy reported that 13 percent
of sex offenders were convicted of another felony within five years, less
than half the rate for other felons. Among sex offenders, child molesters
reoffended the least.

Getting tougher isn’t likely to improve those numbers; it could do the
opposite by pushing sex offenders underground. Issaquah city officials
recently passed an ordinance that seeks to corral sex offenders deemed
likely to reoffend on about 15 percent of the city’s developable land —
most of it in commercial and industrial areas.

Such extreme measures encourage contempt and disregard of the law in
exchange for little additional protection. If sex offenders find a place
to live, there is nothing to prevent them from hopping a bus or driving
to another neighborhood. Worse yet, they might just decide to forgo

Even the current state system can boomerang. This summer, a man allegedly
used Bellingham’s sex offender registry – which listed complete addresses
instead of block numbers like other lists – to hunt down and kill two men
who had served time for sex crimes.

Not all sex offenders register under the current system, but most of them
do. The more the state tries to clamp down on sex offenders who already
have served their prison time, the fewer of them will comply. Neighbors
will be less safe for having lost a vital piece of information about the
sex offenders living among them.

Lawmakers should restrain their urge to play to people’s fears with
legislation that sounds good but makes no one truly any safer.

Copyright 2005 Tacoma News, Inc.

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