From his room, 24-year-old Kevin Zahnd can see nothing but a few trees, an empty road and a gravel parking lot. His room is as stifling as it is barren. He has no phone. He uses a garbage bag for a closet, and his mattress is as thin as the one he left behind in prison. The picture on his banged up Zenith TV wavers; the cable company doesn't reach that part of town.
Zahnd lives in a residential hotel so remote it doesn't even have a name. But its one of the few places in Waterloo where Zahnd convicted of sexual abuse for impregnating a 13-year-old can live legally. He is prohibited by the 2002 law -described as one of the toughest in the nation from living within roughly six city blocks from even a home day care center. Zahnd's living options under the law? Two residential motels so desolate they are miles from the nearest bus stop.
Critics of the new law note that exiling these ex-offenders so far from the few family who would support them, and equally far from their jobs and counselors, may serve to placate the community, but will end up being counterproductive.
"We don't make drunk drivers live 2,000 feet from the nearest bar. Shoplifters are not forced to live 2,000 feet from the nearest mall," complained Ken Shadlow, who was convicted of taking nude photos of two teenage girls and sentenced to five years in prison. He must live in a halfway house in Waterloo because he is unable to find a legal place of his own.
Shadlow agrees that his crime was despicable, "But now I can't go stay with my own parents, in the house where I grew up?"
Opponents of the new law also point out its absurdities. Take Shadlow's case, they say. Shadlow regularly gets furloughs from the halfway house to go to his parent's home to play with his five children. He is allowed to be there all day, even though there is a child day care center only three blocks away. But the new law only prohibits Shadlow from sleeping there at night, when the day care center is closed.
"The attitude [among lawmakers] is, castrate them, poke their eyes out, whatever you do is OK, because they're sex offenders," Fred McCraw, president of Iowa's district attorney association says sarcastically. "But this law protects nobody," he notes seriously. "It just causes enormous headaches for law enforcement."
To date, only a few have been charged with living outside restricted zones. One ex-prisoner was arrested and charged for living illegally with his parents. Another man who was arrested faced a court appearance in January 2003, but the only residence he has found since is a camper out in the woods with no phone or mail service. Miles from the nearest bus stop and having no transportation, he could not reach his lawyer or the court.
The former prisoners affected by the law are understandably unhappy with it. "They're colonizing us," pleads Kenny Rhodenbaugh, a 43-year-old convicted of sexual assault on his son's baby-sitter.
"The law treats you as if you ain't going to change," said Alfred, a 23-year-old who refused to give his last name. "it makes you want to re-offend."
Alfred was convicted of having sex with a 13-year-old girl he met in a bar. He insists he is not the type of offender that should be exiled. He, and other critics of the law, complain that Iowa's statute makes no distinctions. A serial pedophile who preys on schoolchildren is treated no differently than a 19-year-old convicted of having consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. In addition, the law has no provision for a judge or parole officer to determine whether the offender poses a continuing danger.
In Iowa City just one block is open to sex offenders. In Dubuque, nearly all affordable housing is off limits; the only "legal" residences are the costly homes that line the golf course. Virtually all of Des Moines is off limits, even the homeless shelters. And entire rural towns are out of bounds because the 2,000 foot rule covers the entire town.
Others have no sympathy for the ex-cons. "These people are predators," said State Sen. Jerry Behn, who proposed the law.
"If this law creates hardships for them, that doesn't bother me."
Supporters of the law cite statistics: Over the last 20 years, the number of sex offenders has risen 7% a year, faster than any other category of violent crime. Researchers estimate that 10% to 40% of sex offenders will re-offend, and nearly all will be released from prison.
Those numbers scare parents, and lead to the innovative, aggressive (and some say draconian) laws such as this one, which has essentially created "sex offender ghettos."
But experts warn that tougher laws will never be as effective as treating sex offenders and educating children on how to stay safe.
"Many of these laws respond to community anxieties," said David Finkelhor, a sexual abuse expert at the University of New Hampshire. "But I'm inclined to think they don't help that much."
"People think if we just had tougher laws, that would solve the problem of child molestation, but it won't," noted Dr. Gene Abel, an Atlanta psychiatrist who treats pedophiles. "Child molesters don't molest because children happen to be nearby." Most offenders victimize someone in their own family. "Legislating to try to change that . . . just won't work," he said.
Experts say that it is a myth that child molesters stalk children at school playgrounds from behind bushes. In reality, that type of crime accounts for only a tiny percentage of sex offenses. More than 80 percent of child sex abuse victims know their perpetrator, such as a relative, neighbor, friend, teacher, or coach. But that is exactly the thinking behind the new law, which banishes the sex offenders anyway.
The law also mandates that former prisoners take regular polygraph tests, and some counties require arousal tests. Those who cannot find a legal home can be returned to prison for up to two years.
McCaw says he hopes the arrests will provoke a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the new law. Some Iowa attorneys consider the lack of individual evaluations the most vulnerable aspect of the new residency law.The Iowa Civil Liberties Union is currently challenging the new law.
All states now require sex offenders to register their addresses with the police. And over 20 states notify residents directly about a sex offender's past crimes. Six states subject the most dangerous sex offenders to "chemical castration." Other states permit civil commitment of sex offenders even after their prison sentences have expired. And other states are now experimenting with outfitting sex offenders with high-tech devices which allow their movements to be tracked by satellite, which set off alarms at police stations if they approach a school or playground.
An Iowa trial court recently held the law was unconstituional and enjoined it. The state has appealed. Historically, stigmatized minorities have routinely been ghettoized, whether through economic, social, cultural or legal means. At this point in American history, ex prisoners and sex offenders are the last minority who can still be stigmatized and ostracized in this manner. g
Sources: Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times
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