Thursday, April 1, 2010

Chelsea's Law: Horrific Crime, Reactionary Law

Chelsea King, was a 17-year-old California High School student who went out for a run and never returned. He body was found days later in a shallow grave. A registered sex offender, John Albert Gardner III, has been charged with raping and killing her.

The Associated Press reported that Brent and Kelly King, Chelsea's parents,support plans by California Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher to introduce the so-called Chelsea's Law. Fletcher says he's still working on the law but preliminary discussions will focus on a "one-strike" provision, parole reform and better GPS tracking of registered sex offenders.

California is in the midst of a catastrophic financial crisis, with the corrections system under intense pressure to cut spending while it imprisons approximately 171,000 inmates, more by far than any other state. At the same time, the federal courts have ordered the governor to reduce prison population by as much a 40,000 inmates.

If that were not enough to cause lawmakers to pause before implementing another set of knee jerk crime fighting measures in the wake a horrific crime maybe its time to look back on the history of sex offender legislation named for crime victims.

The first in the long line of victim labelled legislation is the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Act. The law was named for 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling who was abducted at gun point in Minnesota and never seen again. In 1994, the Jacob Wetterling Act established the first sex offender registry.

In 1996, Megan's Law was enacted. The law was named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka who was raped and murdered in New Jersey by a neighbor who was a convicted sex offender. Megan's law expanded the Wetterling Act by requiring community notification in addition to a sex offender registry. All 50 states have enacted some form of Megan's Law.

Does Megan's Law work?

The research is not encouraging. According to the Newark Star-Ledger, Megan's Law, has failed to deter sex crimes or reduce the number of victims since its passage 15 years ago. The federally funded study conducted by the New Jersey Department of Corrections and Rutgers University, suggested the growing cost of carrying out the law -- estimated at $5.1 million statewide in 2007 -- "may not be justifiable."

"Despite wide community support for these laws, there is little evidence to date, including this study, to support a claim that Megan's Law is effective in reducing either new first-time sex offenses or sexual re-offenses," the study concluded in a 44-page report.

The Star-Ledger reported, that the study examined the cases of 550 sex offenders who were broken into two groups --those released from prison before the passage of Megan's Law and those released afterward. The researchers found no statistically significant difference between the groups in whether the offenders committed new sex crimes.

Among those released before the passage of Megan's Law, 10 percent were re-arrested on sex-crime charges. Among the other group, 7.6 percent were re-arrested for such crimes.

Similarly, the researchers found no significant difference in the number of victims of the two groups. Together, the offenders had 796 victims, ages 1 to 87. Most of the offenders had prior relationships with their new victims, and nearly half were family members. In just 16 percent of the cases, the offender was a stranger.

Next is Jessica's Law. Nine-year-old Jessica Lundsford was raped and murder in Florida by a convicted sex offender. In the wake of her death, Florida and a number of other states enhanced penalties for sex offenders and imposed residency restriction on offenders along with GPS monitoring. Federal legislation that included GPS tracking of offenders failed to pass.

Does Jessica's Law Work?

According to the Los Angeles Times, a recent report by the California Sexual Offender Management Board portrayed the effect of Jessica's Law as difficult to determine at best, and wrong-headed at worst.

The requirement that offenders live away from children has required many to stay away from their own relatives or to become homeless -- both instances of instability that put them "at increased risk of re-offense," the report said.

The report also challenged the premise of the law's residency restrictions.

"The hypothesis that sex offenders who live in close proximity to schools, parks and other places children congregate have an increased likelihood of sexually re-offending remains unsupported by research," the report said. "On the contrary . . . there is almost no correlation between sex offenders living near restricted areas and where they commit their offenses."

The Times reported, California spends an estimated $80 million annually on ankle-bracelet monitoring of high-risk offenders, but the report suggested that there is no indication that the public is safer from felons monitored by global positioning systems than from those unmonitored.

"The law was passed with little information about how it would be implemented or evidence of whether GPS technology would protect Californians from sex offenders," the report said.

Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley law professor who has studied the measures, told the Los Angeles Times they have largely become "symbolic politics." Few have bothered to question whether the measures actually promote public safety, he said, because of the stigma of defending sex offenders.

Then there are Amber Alerts. The alerts were named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl abducted and murdered in 1996 near her grandparents' house in Arlington, Texas. The "Amber" in Amber Alert is an acronym - it stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. Amber Alerts send out a message regarding child abductions on the Emergency Alert System, used in the past exclusively for weather advisories.

Do Amber Alerts Work?

According to the Boston Globe, the first independent study of whether Amber Alerts work was led by University of Nevada criminologist Timothy Griffin. He looked at hundreds of abduction cases between 2003 and 2006 and found that Amber Alerts - for all their urgency and drama - actually accomplish little.

In most cases where they were issued, Griffin found, Amber Alerts played no role in the eventual return of abducted children. Their successes were generally in child custody fights that didn't pose a risk to the child. And in those rare instances where kidnappers did intend to rape or kill the child, Amber Alerts usually failed to save lives.

The Globe further reported, that some critics suggest that Amber Alerts create a climate of fear around a tragic but extremely rare event, pumping up public anxiety. Griffin calls it "crime control theater."

Finally, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. Although not enacted until 2006, it was named for Adam Walsh who was abducted in 1981 from a Hollywood, Florida Sears department store and murdered. The act set up a system of categorizing sex offenders for purposes of registration and community notification.

Does the Walsh Act Work?

A study entitled, The Adam Walsh Act: A False Sense of Security or an Effective Public Policy Initiative? found the reclassification scheme advocated by the Walsh Act was of little significance.

The study utilized a sample of sex offenders in New York State, the study examined the effectiveness of the Adam Walsh tier system to classify offenders by likelihood of recidivism. Results indicated no support for the Adam Walsh risk classification scheme, as sex offenders in Tier 1 (lowest risk) were re-arrested for both non-sexual and sexual offenses more than sex offenders in Tier 2(moderate risk) or Tier 3(highest risk).

The proposed Chelsea's Law renews the debate among criminologists about crime-fighting measures passed in the wake of horrific, highly publicized crimes that originates from strong emotions rather than evidence-base research into what actually works.

The checkered history of much of the high-profile sex offender legislation gives rise to real questions about their effectiveness in protecting the public and the long term implications for actually creating a more dangerous sexual predator underground.

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