Monday, October 10, 2005

Sex Offenders Near Schools: Hysteria or a Call to Action?

by Kyle Michaelis
If anyone tests the limits of compassion (i.e. liberalism), it is a child sex offender. I live less than one block away from McPhee Elementary in Lincoln, and yesterday's Lincoln Journal-Star reported that 15 registered sex offenders live within this same 2,000 foot vicinity.

That's a horrifying statistic, particularly for parents, in the face of two recent events that have shaken the community:
With such high-profile incidents as the Sept. 22 sexual assault of a kindergarten boy at Arnold Elementary School by a 27-year-old group home resident who lived miles away, parents, school officials and the public are searching for more ways to protect children....

On Tuesday, the safety of children was dealt another blow when authorities arrested a man on suspicion of 10 misdemeanor counts of child enticement near Prescott School, 1930 S. 20th St. Authorities on Wednesday charged him with felony attempted first-degree sexual assault of a child.

15 within 2,000 feet. 15 of my neighbors. Sadly, the next-closest elementary school in the city has even one more sex offender than that.

Numbers like this aren't going to sit well with anyone who has the slightest clue about the rates of repeat offenses for this type of crime. But, honestly, what can we do about it?
More than a dozen states, including Iowa, have chosen one method of dealing with the problem of child predators: They ban convicted child molesters from living within a specified distance of schools and child-care centers. Iowa’s law restricts convicted child molesters from living within 2,000 feet — a little more than four blocks — of a school or child care center.

State Sen. Gwen Howard of Omaha has said she plans to introduce similar legislation during the Nebraska Legislature’s next session....

Is that right? Is that just? Do I/Should I care? Would I care if I were a parent in one of these neighborhoods?
Tim Butz, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Nebraska, said Friday residency restriction laws do not necessarily make a community safer.

“Not everyone who is a predator is listed on a registry,” he said. “A lot of unprosecuted sex offenders are not registered.”

Residency laws create instability in the sex offender community by forcing offenders to move, and, in some cases, causing them to lose jobs.

They will go underground, Butz predicted, and thus off law enforcement radar scopes. And, he said, they likely won’t register or complete treatment programs.

Kristen Houser of Omaha has done anti-sexual violence work for 15 years and in 2004 was president of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. She said communities spend too much energy, time and money talking about this small, unrepresentative group of registered sex offenders.

Most predators are repeat offenders who go undetected, she said, because their crimes are not reported by victims who don’t trust the community to believe them.

“I am much more concerned about offenders out there that law enforcement doesn’t know about,” Houser said.

High-profile cases attract the public’s attention, she said, and reactions like residency laws end up giving people a false sense of security.

So, do we do nothing? Do we just lock-down our schools and keep a good eye on the look-out for suspicous characters around the playground? For all my opinions, I don't have an answer to a question like this.

These criminals have served their time, even if their debt to society can never be repaid. Even scarier - it's true - the sex offenders we know about are only those who've been caught. If the state reports 15, who knows how many are really in the area? 1 more, 10 more - is that even possible?

I don't want to infringe on anyone's rights. Nor do I want children to be the prey of monsters.

Is the shattering of a child's innocence and identity sin enough to forsake rights that are otherwise held as sacred. It's hard not to respond "absolutely," but one must always be mindful that it's far easier to jump on the bandwagon on its way to a lynching than it is to apply the brakes.

For more on what can and should be done to protect our children in Nebraska, read this guest column that ran in Saturday's Omaha World-Herald about the 2001 report of the Governor's Working Group on the Management and Treatment of Sex Offenders. The author, editor of the Nebraska Criminal Justice Review, accuses Governors Johanns and Heineman of neglecting this report at our children's peril, suggesting all state legislators and local politiicans read it before considering future legislative actions.


Anonymous Mr. Wilson said...

I agree, Kyle, persons who commit sex crimes against children are a tough lot to argue on behalf of. Society does not look kindly upon sex criminals, both because of the nature of the crimes and the high recidivism rate among the criminals.

I can't support knee-jerk proposals to establish buffer zones around schools, though. Not until research proves that sex offenders living within that buffer zone are significantly (in the statistical sense) more likely to commit sex crimes within that buffer zone than elsewhere. If there are no data to justify such a significant move, a buffer zone law will serve only to give the community a false sense of security justified by paranoia rather than fact.

My wife and I discussed this issue last night. She said that she recalls reading an article that concluded that sex offenders are actually less likely than other criminals to commit crimes near their homes. (I'm not sure if that includes crimes committed within the offender's own home.) She couldn't remember where she read the article, though, and I haven't been able to dig it up, so take her memory with the appropriately-sized grain of salt.

Anonymous Reni Gaddy said...

Creating buffer zones around schools is NOT a knee jerk reaction. It is common sense.

We have buffer zones around schools that restrict liquor sales and lower speed limits. Why not prevent molesters from living within that same zone?

I just researched schools in my area (northern Texas) and found that, not only do many child molesters live around schools and parks, they are CLUSTERED around them.

There is a reason for this. Anyone who can't spot it is a fool. Anyone who doesn't demand that a buffer zone be in place is an even bigger fool.

Likewise, to think that a buffer zone would completely protect our children from pedophiles is also foolish. However, at least a pedophile would have to walk further than his front yard to stalk a victim.

Yes, there are many pedophiles who do remain unnoticed by law and neighbors. There always will be. So let's deal with the ones we know about.


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