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Focus on Sex Offenders Increases While Number of Sex Offenses Decline

In September, 2006 the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released its annual Crime Victimization report for 2005, which indicated a dramatic drop in the number of rapes and sexual assaults nationally. The 191,670 reported incidents represent an almost 10 percent decline in rape and sexual abuse from the previous year and a reduction of more than 25 percent since 2000.

In fact, since 1993 the number of reported rapes and sexual assaults has dropped over 60 percent. Criminal justice experts attribute this decline to longer sentences for sex offenders as well as more therapy and a wider use of psychotropic drugs used to treat them. Also, the number of people convicted of sex crimes is rising more quickly than for all other crimes except drugs, and the increased incarceration of sex offenders has helped drive down the number of sexual assaults.

The decline in reported sexual offences also applies to children. According to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, who analyzed incidents of child abuse reported to protection agencies, sexual assaults of children aged 12 to 17 dropped by 79 percent between 1993 and 2003.

However, in 2005 state legislators passed over 150 sex offender-related laws, more than double the number the year before, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And this trend shows no sign of slowing; indeed, the volume of sex offender legislation appears to be increasing nationwide.

Within the past year states have passed laws that are increasingly restrictive, with at least 16 states imposing limits on where sex offenders can live and requiring GPS satellite tracking after they are released. Two states, Oregon and South Carolina, enacted laws in 2006 that permit the death penalty for certain sex offences.

State and local officials have also considered a broader range of punitive measures for sex offenders. Officials in Florida and Louisiana recently enacted rules prohibiting registered sex offenders from staying in emergency shelters during hurricanes. In Ohio and Kansas, state legislators introduced bills that would require sex offenders to use pink license plates on their vehicles. At least half a dozen states have passed laws barring sex offenders from participating in Halloween. A proposed law in Florida would make it illegal for sex offenders to possess or use Viagra, Cialis or other sex-enhancement drugs.

The recent deluge of sex offender-related legislation began with the May 2005 passage of Jessicas Law in Florida, named after Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old-girl who was murdered by a convicted sex offender. The issue has been taken up by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that bills itself as a bipartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers, which in April 2006 developed model sex offender legislation it is pushing in a number of states. On the federal level, on July 27, 2006 President Bush signed into law the Adam Walsh Protection and Safety Act, which establishes a national sex offender registry and strengthens federal penalties for sex crimes involving children.

But some experts worry that the sudden proliferation of new sex offender laws indicates a trend driven by emotion and politics rather than social science and sound policy, and that some of the new measures may in fact be counterproductive. One area of concern is residency restrictions, which bar sex offenders from living within a certain distance from schools, parks, daycare centers and other areas where children are present.

Residency restrictions may give a false sense of security to the public, because they focus on where offenders live rather than barring them from traveling into a prohibited area or rather than preventing them from working certain jobs where they have access to children, said Carolyn Atwell-Davis, director of legislative affairs at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. We fear that restricting where sex offenders live may result in these offenders not telling police when they move.

John Q. La Fond, a retired law professor at the University of Kansas-Missouri and author of Preventing Sexual Violence: How Society Should Cope with Sex Offenders, said that new laws also risk misdirecting attention by focusing on strangers when more than 80 percent of sex offenders are acquaintances of their victims. Many of the new rules end up pushing offenders out of one area and concentrating them in the few remaining areas they have left to go, he said.

Despite such misgivings, restrictions on sex offenders have proliferated on the federal, state and local levels and are now being implemented by private entities, too. In Kansas, a developer has begun building sex offender free subdivisions that block sex offenders from moving in; if someone in the community is convicted of a sex crime, the subdivision will fine the person $1,500 daily until he or she moves out.

With the approaching midterm elections, sex offender-related issues mostly along the lines of who-can-be-tougher-on-sex-offenders have been raised in attorney general races in New York, Ohio, Alabama and Rhode Island, and in governors races in California and Vermont. Sparring over sex offender laws has become a partisan political issue in Washington state and Illinois. In New York, Republican Assembly candidate Paulette Barlette has proposed implanting microchips in released sex offenders to better track them. Alabamas incumbent Attorney General, Troy King, also a Republican, has pledged to seek the death penalty against certain child sex offenders.

Leigh L. Linden, who teaches economics at Columbia University, disagrees that restrictions on sex offenders are strictly a matter of politics. "I do believe there is something more there than politicians trying to outdo each other by being tough on crime", said Mr. Linden, who studied data in communities around Charlotte, N.C. and found that a homes value fell 4 percent when a registered sex offender moved in within a 1/10-mile radius. "People are really worried about this issue but Im not sure why they seem to be more concerned now than before." 

However, given the recent dramatic increase in sex offender-related laws while for the past decade the number of sex crimes has been falling, and considering that some of the legislation being passed may actually be counterproductive, it appears that punitive restrictions for sex offenders are less about protecting the public and more about getting politicians, primarily Republicans, elected.

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