Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A Sex Offender Policy that Doesn't Offend Our Principles

by Kyle Michaelis
It won't reach debate in the legislature for some time, but I want to thank all those responsible for crafting a policy for convicted sex offenders that avoids the absurd "Residency Restriction Fever" that has caused neighboring Iowa to lose its sense. Individual communities each trying to one up another in the illusory protections they provide their children, even to the point of banning those who will forever bear this shame from living within city limits entirely, makes for a system of pure madness. I rejoice that so many of our political leaders have thus far refused to give-in to this easy and even sympathetic form of hysteria.

The people of Nebraska have demanded that state government respond to Iowa's actions and the supposed threat it might force across our borders. The plan announced by Gov. Dave Heineman, Attorney General Jon Bruning, and Democratic Chair of the Legislature's Judicial Committee, Sen. Pat Bourne of Omaha, is infinitely more reasonable.

The Omaha World-Herald reports of the proposal:
People who rape young children in Nebraska could go to prison for life under a sexual predator proposal being unveiled today....

First-offense rape of a child younger than 12 would carry a penalty of 20 years to life in prison, up from the current penalty of one to 50 years. Repeat offenses would be treated like murder - mandatory life in prison.

Harsher penalties also would apply to those who have sexual contact, though not penetration, with a child younger than 15. Sexual intercourse with a child ages 12 to 16 would continue to carry the current penalty of up to 50 years....

State Sen. Pat Bourne of Omaha said today that the plan would contain:

• Mandatory jail time for sex offenders who do not register with law enforcement, as required when they leave prison.

• Better supervision of sex offenders after they leave prison - some would be under parole supervision for the rest of their lives.

• Easier commitment procedures to send sex offenders to mental hospitals if they have a "mental abnormality or personality defect" that makes them likely to commit future sexual assaults.

The proposal also would require that three prosecutors be notified - the county attorney from the county of conviction, the county attorney where the offender will live, and the attorney general - when the offender is about to leave prison. That would give each of the three a chance to initiate civil commitment proceedings.

Civil commitment hearings would be mandatory for some sex offenders - those with repeat offenses, those who have refused to register and those who have refused treatment while in prison.

The measure also would allow cities to enact ordinances barring convicted sex offenders from living within 500 feet of a school - the same standard for schools' gun-free zones.

Residency restrictions for sex offenders of 500 feet, so long as they are thus limited and in accord with federal gun and drug abuse restrictions that already exist, seem entirely fair and manageable even if they are of questionable practical value. Should such policy even be enacted in state law rather than being left to the cities, it would be hard to object so long as parents and schools still recognize that there is no replacement for vigilance, safety lessons for students, and age-appropriate sexual education.

I am much heartened by this proposal and the step in the right direction it represents from when this issue first captured our attention (still keeping an eye on you, Sen. Howard). We should only be so lucky that every debate arising this session results in so reasonable a response to the all-too-familiar tendency towards political grandstanding such hot button issues inspire.

Alas, that will not be the case.

***Update - 7:12 pm
The Lincoln Journal-Star quotes Sen. Bourne declaring it’s still "up in the air" whether cities such as Gretna and South Sioux City, which did not wait to give the state a chance to craft a comprehensive legislative response, will be allowed to maintain recently-passed ordinances containing the longer, Iowa-inspired, 2,000-foot residency restrictions.

Though likely unsurprising to readers, I believe anything but statewide uniformity on this issue would be a terrible mistake. It alone assures fairness under the law and some common base of expectation and understanding on which schools, law enforcement, and - most importantly - parents can rely.

500 feet is fair, grounded in precedent, and as fundamentally adequate as any arbitrary distance a community should desire. The state would be well-advised to prohibit any further extended restrictions that otherwise know no logical extreme.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

And this law does what? Makes one "feel" good and fuzzy and warm and cozy to know that sexual predators, especially those who prey on children, will be at least 500 feet from living within a school?

Based on assumptions from this site:

So here is the dilemma - if most sexual predators targeting children are known to the family or child - this relationship exists external to the locations this bill presents and location of the predator in proximity to a school matters little. Combined with the low relapse rate presented at the same site, the conditions become more remote for potential abuse. Remember, this bill is targeting existing sex offenders.

While I realize the penalties are higher, there is no indication that an extended period of incarceration will deter a sexual predator from pursuing an assault on a child.

So again I pose - what is the point aside from gaining some political momentum when it comes time to polling?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an addendum to my previous comment-

-I realize this bill also targets first-time offenders.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...


I don't deny that such restrictions are likely to have little real practical value - I say so in my post. My point is only that this more measured approach is a drastic improvement over that which has taken Iowa by storm.

I have taken every opportunity to challenge the hysteria at the core of what is another misplaced attempt at "getting tough on crime," but sex offenders - particularly those who target children - are perhaps the most indefensible population imaginable. This legislation respects their rights and, more importantly, America's principles of justice far better than the alternatives that have thus far been proposed.

In a democracy, "the people" deserve to have a say on what punishment fits a crime. So long as it is dealt by a court of law rather than being applied after justice has been served, there's not much room to argue but against the vengeful impulses of the general population.

There is no cure-all to this problem. There is no cure-all to crime in general. But attempts at new prevention strategies (even those of limited value) are no more instantly dismissable than they are perfectly effective. Do not underestimate the value of what peace of mind a government can provide its citizens...even when rooted in illusion.


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