Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sex Offenders: Ignoring the Lessons of Reactionary Legislation

Maryland's sex offender laws are receiving intense scrutiny this year as state lawmakers respond to the recent murder of 11-year-old Sarah Foxwell, allegedly by a registered child sex offender.

In 2005, Florida legislators were in a similar frenzy. According to the St. Petersburg Times, the brutal killing of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, fueled the creation of a boogeyman in Florida politics: the sex offender. But now — after time, a trial and the killer's death have dissolved the zeal that spurred Jessica's Law — a number of lawmakers are rethinking how the state monitors sex offenders and whether current laws are really making children safer.

In Maryland, according to the Baltimore Sun, some lawmakers have seized on sex offender laws as a potential election year rallying point, saying the state, under a Democratic governor who tried to outlaw the death penalty and opposes civil commitment of sex offenders, has failed to crack down on predators.

Legislators are reviewing everything from the length of prison sentences for sex offenders to what information Maryland should share with other states. During a hearing that spanned nearly seven hours, the House Judiciary Committee reviewed just a fraction of the 75-plus sex offense bills that have been filed this year.

In Florida, the experience of over-criminalization and piling-on easy targets like sex offenders has opened the eyes of some legislators. "The emotion and publicity and political science that comes into play after a horrific situation tends to create an overreaction," said state representative Mike Weinstein.

The Times reported that recent studies and state statistics show that the fear that propelled the laws doesn't match reality. "Across the country, studies are not showing that changes in sex crime rates can be attributed to those policies," said Dr. Jill Levenson, a professor at Lynn University who studies sex offenders. "Sex crimes against children are on the downslide — but since the 1990s."

My Take

Maryland is a classic example of the knee-jerk reaction that often follow high-profile crimes. Florida has learned the consequences of reactionary politics. That lesson is there for legislators in Maryland and across the country.

Yet, political expediency will take precedence over the well being of Maryland residents. The GOP see an opportunity to attack a vulnerable Democratic governor on a sensational law and order issue. That is a recipe for disaster. Much of what is being proposed in Maryland is not evidence-based. In fact, much of what passes as tough on sex offenders makes children and families more vulnerable.

Case in point, sex offender residency restrictions have been implemented in some states and communities across the country. The law restricts where sex offenders can reside and have made it virtually impossible for some sex offenders to live anywhere in a given community. The result? Instead of being able to track the whereabouts of sex offenders, homeless offenders have gone underground, avoiding supervision. Families are in greater danger when a child predator disappears into the shadows, as opposed to living in plain view.

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