Sex offender laws lauded

How effective are laws that compel sex offenders to register and allow law enforcement to notify the community of where they live? Is it fair to treat sex offenders and kidnappers differently than all other criminals?

Perhaps not surprising, the answers are complicated and largely depend on who you ask.

Erika Sanders, advocacy program director for Citizens Against Domestic and Sexual Abuse, is a strong supporter of the law. She said the community has the right to know and the right to protect themselves against sex offenders, a type of criminal known for reoffending over and over. An informed public, she says, is a safer public.

Moreover, Sanders points out that sex crimes have an especially devastating impact on victims.

Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley says it's the best law enforcement law ever passed.

"It allows citizens to know who is in the neighborhood," he said. "We can alert citizens so everyone can use a little common sense. You don't let your daughter babysit for the rapist next door and you don't want your son to mow the lawn for the convicted child molester down the street."

Hawley points out that the entire country has adopted similar laws. "Per capita murder rate has plummeted over the last 10 years," he said, "I believe sex offender registration law is one of the reasons for that."

The empirical evidence, however, is mixed. A 1995 Washington State Institute of Public Policy study, "Community Notification: a study of offender characteristics and recidivism," states that "community notification had little effect on recidivism as measured by new arrests for sex offenders."

On the other hand, the report concludes that the law had "an impact on timing of new arrests." In other words, sex offenders are just as likely to reoffend under the notification law, but they are "arrested for new crimes much more quickly," the study finds.

A 1998 study by the same agency finds that arrest rates for both adult and juvenile sex offenders continues to decline. The change in adult cases is modest, but decline in juvenile rates has been dramatic, particularly for sex crimes other than rape.

At the same time, the study finds the number of child sexual abuse cases reported to CPS is the same since 1995. That may indicate that there are the same number of victims, just fewer offenders are being caught and prosecuted.

Some argue that putting a spotlight on an offender may not always be a good thing. Dawn Camp, the mother of registered sex offender John Isley, said the "hysteria" surrounding her son being rated as a Level 3 sex offender caused him to lose his job and home. She said he came to Oak Harbor to get away from trouble-making friends in Snohomish County and make a better life for himself.

Now he's back in Snohomish County. "My son is totally depressed," she said. "He's very down-hearted. He feels like he's been beat up."

Coupeville Attorney Tom Pacher said sex offenders need to have a chance at a normal life if they are going to become crime-free citizens. "It has to be hard when the sheriff holds up your photo at a meeting in front of a crowd of angry villagers with torches," he said. "The tough part is we want people to get out and turn their lives around, but we make it as difficult as possible for them."

Pacher said it's dangerous to put a person into a position where he or she has nothing to lose. "Making it tough for them to live or work anywhere doesn't give them much to live for," he said.

The Washington State Institute of Public Policy reported in 1996 that there were 33 cases of harassment directed at registered sex offenders since the law started six years prior. In a 1993 Snohomish County case, public notification of a sex offender resulted in the man's home being burned down.

There have been anecdotal successes of the law. A couple years ago, a Level 2 sex offender was arrested riding on a bus with a young girl, which was a violation of his release conditions. The reporting witness knew about the offender from attending a community meeting.

Yet Sanders admits that the laws, and the public's attitude, make it difficult for sex offenders to "get on with their lives." She said the answer may be to dedicate more resources to rehabilitation and treatment of sex offenders. Too often, she said, offenders get out of prison without having had any type of counseling.

"There are tremendous barriers to bettering themselves," she said, "but a level of trust has to be rebuilt between the offender and society."

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