December 15, 2008
The unthreatening sex offender next door
Breathless reports about people who are in the state's database of registered sex offenders living in residential neighborhoods are a regular and predictable staple of local TV news coverage. The question that doesn't often get asked in these reports is do those guys actually represent a genuine threat to their neighbors? Those who say they're not are trying to do something about it.
This unlikely political force, which dubs itself Texas Voices, vows to fight the state's -- and the nation's -- sweeping registration laws.
The group believes community notification laws fail to protect the public, because they don't distinguish dangerous predators from otherwise harmless men and women who foolishly had sex with underage lovers, served their sentences and don't need a lifetime of public scrutiny.
Texas Voices hasn't yet turned anyone away but targets its message at those who committed nonviolent offenses that did not involve young children.
Selling the concept to the public may be difficult, however. Texas law stipulates that minors, defined as anyone younger than 17, cannot legally consent to sex with an adult.
Texas Voices is finding agreement in unusual places.
Ray Allen, the former Texas House Corrections chair who helped shepherd into law tough sex registration bills, said he and his colleagues went too far.
"We cast the net widely to make sure we got all the sex offenders. Now, 15 years on, it turns out that really only a small percentage of people convicted of sex offenses pose a true danger to the public," he said.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the Senate Criminal Justice chair, said, "If we're not careful, we're going to have a sex offender registry that is so large and so encompassing, it's not much good."
Texas Voices members know their chances for success hinge on politicians risking their careers on a population with just about zero political clout.
Yeah, I don't think much of their chances to effect change either. But there's certainly merit in what they're trying to do. Whitmire's statement gets at the heart of the matter. Not all of the crimes that land a person in this database are indicative of a continuing menace to society. Treating them as though they are doesn't serve the needs of law enforcement, and doesn't make anyone safer. It makes a lot of sense to rethink this approach.
Note by the way that advocating this kind of change doesn't equate to approval of the original crimes that landed these people in the offenders database. It's a question of assessing risk, and of recognizing that there's a cost to overestimating those risks. We ought to be able, and willing, to make reassessments when it's called for.
Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 15, 2008 to Crime and Punishment
Chuck - you were kind enough to publish my piece on this subject a couple of years ago. I'm on the registry - have been for years - but my black lab is more of a threat to the neighborhood than I am - and he is too lazy to get off the couch to chase a bird.
Sex offender restrictions are about creating the illusion of security. Most public officials, if they have bothered to invest more than about a minute thinking about the issue, know that most abuse cases involve a parent, other family member, family friend or trusted authority figure - teacher, coach or cop. Read about any of those lately?
Politicians pander to the fears of their constituents, creating the appearance of security, but accomplishing little. Most of us are harmless, hardly the "predators" that the local TV stations routinely call us in their factless reporting. But we are all treated as representing the same degree of risk.
The Chron article was dead on correct and I was glad to read an informed discussion. But I will remain watchful as our Legislature reconvenes, no doubt ready to impose blatantly unconstitutional, post-conviction restrictions on our residence and movement, all in an effort to pretend they are doing their jobs. It's BS, big time.
"Ray Allen, the former Texas House Corrections chair who helped shepherd into law tough sex registration bills, said he and his colleagues went too far."
It's about people start admitting to this insane legislation.
Here are three very good articles I wish everyone would read.
Residency limits on sex offenders questioned
Lawmakers briefed on sex offender management---There is a great "Power Point" presentation link within the article.
When Evidence is Ignored
Residential Restrictions For Sex Offenders
By Richard Tewksbury and Jill Levenson
This does point out the idiocy of these laws.
First, you can be a "registered sex offender" in many places, if, say, one day after the age of consent you have sex with your 1-month younger boy/girlfriend and get caught. Ooh, lock the doors.
Second, there's a fundamental question: if these people are so dangerous that we have to warned about them, why are they not in prison? We need to make our minds up.
Mostly, they are a way for politicians to claim they're tough on people for whom most of us have no sympathy.