Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: Kudos to the Allegheny County Courts

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
May 13, 2011

The Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas has launched a sex offender court. Problem-solving courts have been around for some time. Sex offender courts are a little different. The Post-Gazette reported, “[U]nlike the county's much-lauded "problem-solving courts" -- such as DUI court and mental health court, which focus first on therapeutic goals -- sex offender court will focus first on accountability.”

The Center for Court Innovation, a group that helped launch the first sex offender courts in New York, suggests that sex offender courts are not designed as alternatives to incarceration, they are not diversion courts, and they are not treatment courts. Sex offender court participants do not opt-in but rather all cases of a certain nature or charge are automatically routed for their entire processing and adjudication. Sex offender courts emphasize the need for offender accountability and increased community safety.

The Allegheny County Courts should be commended for taking a calm and reflective approach to sex offender management -- the Court acted after deliberation, not as a knee jerk reaction to a tragic event. The sex crime section of the crimes code, state and federal, is replete with legislation created in the wake of a tragic crime. The Jacob Wetterling Act, Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, Amber Alerts, the Adam Walsh Act and Chelsea’s Law to name a few.

Sex offenders are easy targets. The depravity of a sex crime, particularly those involving children, has no defenders. The merit of Allegheny County’s pro-active efforts comes more into focus when looking at what is going on in other places. Sex offender residency restrictions enacted around the country, including in some Pennsylvania municipalities, can have the unintended consequence of exacerbating factors related to recidivism.

The Chicago Tribune reported that draconian residency restrictions for sex offenders are actually making Illinois a more dangerous place.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for child rape. That did not stop the Oklahoma House, last year, from voting 91-2 in favor of legislation that would impose the death penalty on repeat child molesters.

Last fall, in California, the Governor signed Chelsea’s law. The "one-strike" provision in Chelsea’s Law provides that a first time sex offender could be sentenced to life in prison if the crime involved force against a minor that included certain aggravating factors.

In Louisiana, a 78-year-old sex offender cut his prison sentence in half by voluntarily submitting to castration. Castration is legal in eight states.

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