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How We See It: Sex Offender Laws Need Another Look

September 16, 2014 at 1:30 a.m.

Is it assuming too much to believe any substantial changes to the state's sex offender laws is dead on arrival at the state Legislature? Will they even arrive?

Arkansas lawmakers approved creation of a sex offender registry in 1997, joining other states and the federal government in establishing new penalties and handling for people convicted of sex-related crimes, particularly against children. These laws varied state to state, but had at least a couple of similarities. They require convicted sex offenders to register with local and state authorities so their whereabouts can be monitored. They also require some notifications for neighbors under the theory an informed public can at least be more alert to identifiable dangers.

What’s The Point?

Research suggests state lawmakers should examine the popular Megan’s Law restrictions on sex offenders and examine whether they are achieving the goal of increased public safety.

The flood of legislation came in the wake of 7-year-old Megan Kanka's 1994 death in New Jersey. Her rapist and killer was a neighbor previously convicted twice of child sexual abuse. While perhaps few people know her name by heart, most have probably heard the reference to Megan's Law.

It's such an awful crime, nobody -- especially someone who will need to count on votes to win the next election -- will ever want to be perceived as soft on sex offenders. Who can blame them? When someone harms a child, especially, for his own warped pleasure, society owes the offender no leniency.

But here's what society owes itself: The most effective way to protect people from becoming the next victims.

In the nearly 20 years since that wave of new laws, significant research has raised questions about their effectiveness.

"One of the most serious problems that sex offenders face is finding an appropriate place to live," says a report by the Center for Sex Offender Management, an agency formed by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, the National Institute of Corrections and the State Justice Institute. "Zoning or residency restrictions and landlords' or homeowners' efforts to keep offenders from moving into their buildings or neighborhoods limit their options. These 'safety zones' are found mostly in cities and suburbs -- the same places where offenders are most likely to have access to the things they need to be successful in the community, such as jobs, social services, mental health treatment, and transportation."

The agency also notes that no research has shown such restrictions lead to a decrease in sexual re-offending, but it cites research showing laws that banish or restrict housing options for offenders may eliminate the stability and support they need to be successful in the community.Arkansas has 14,000 names on its sex offender registry. As we noted, whatever inconveniences those offenders must live with is of no concern to us. But there's been enough research in two decades to demonstrate Arkansas and other states cannot simply presume their registry and residency restrictions are having a positive impact on public safety. Everyone should want laws not just to be popular, but effective in protecting the public. If they do not achieve the latter, what good are they?We're doubtful any lawmaker is champing at the bit to take up a review of such laws and their impact. What's the up side?

The primary one we can think of is just this: Coming up with something that works even better.

Commentary on 09/16/2014

Print Headline: Sex Offender Laws Need Another Look

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