Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Good Fight

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Protecting Children from Sex Offenders

But who will protect them from the General Assembly?



By the time you read this, our legislature in Columbia likely will have passed another witless and counterproductive piece of legislation designed to accomplish nothing more than win headlines and cheers from the gallery. By the time you read this, our legislators likely will be patting each other on the back and taking bows for their tough stand to protect South Carolina�s children.
Yes, our General Assembly is about to pass one of those laws, which are becoming more common throughout the country, barring people convicted of sex offenses against children from living within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds or other places where children regularly congregate.
The legislation is getting strong bipartisan support. After all, who doesn�t want to protect children from child molesters? But maybe it�s not that simple.
In the past decade, at least 27 states and hundreds of municipalities have jumped on the band wagon and passed residency restrictions for sex offenders. New or expanded laws have been proposed in 20 states this year, according to USA Today.
Many of these laws are called �Jessica�s Laws,� in memory of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, a Florida girl who was murdered in 2005. Her neighbor, convicted sex offender John Couey, is on trial for her death.
These laws were sparked out of pure fear, with little thought or study given to the real effects of controlling where sex offenders live. But the effects should have been predictable and some early studies are coming in to suggest that this approach may be wrong-headed and even counterproductive.
Obviously, drawing huge circles with 1,000-foot radii around these child-friendly venues is going to put huge sections of any modern city off limits to sex offenders. So where are they going to live?
Some registered sex offenders solve the problem by simply dropping out of the monitoring system that identifies and reports their residences. Yes, there are penalties if they get caught, but they are betting they won�t. And while they are off the law enforcement radar, they could be posing a threat to children.
Other sex offenders may be driven out of cities and into rural areas, where there are fewer mental health facilities and other resources to help them stabilize their lives. And some will become homeless, with a similar result. Deprived of a support network, counseling facilities, or monitoring by authorities, they fall back into old patterns of drug and alcohol abuse � and child sexual abuse.
And Nancy Sabin of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, which fights child exploitation, reminds us that 90 percent of abused children suffer at the hands of people they know. The rush to restrict residency of registered sex offenders gives only a �false sense of security� to parents and the public, Sabin said.
This should come as no surprise in South Carolina, where our lawmakers have been offering false security and empty promises for generations. The residency restriction law, now under debate, is a perfect example. It is a quick and easy fix to a problem that is not even defined in this state. How many children were sexually abused near their school or playground last year by a registered sex offender living in the neighborhood? Nobody has asked the question and nobody seems to care.
Passing this vacuous law will cost the General Assembly nothing. But it will cost local law enforcement agencies quite a lot, if the experience of other states with Jessica Laws is an indication. After all, our legislators won�t be responsible for monitoring the whereabouts of sex offenders, measuring the distance from their door to the nearest park or school, arresting and booking them if they come up a few feet short.
If our distinguished solons would stop posturing for a moment and look around, they might find some real and tangible measures to help the children of South Carolina. After all, according to the 2006 national Kids Count Databook (www.sckidscount.org/press06.php) this state ranks 47th in the nation in the wellbeing of its children. Nearly a quarter of the state�s children live in poverty. Due to lack of insurance and prenatal care, we rank fourth for low birth-weight babies in the nation.
Some 38 percent of high school students smoke in S.C. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that the state spend $23.9 million dollars a year on tobacco prevention programs for children and teens. In 2004, the state spent $1.1 million on such programs.
The state�s public education system remains among the worst in the nation, in large part due to an antiquated school funding formula that the General Assembly refuses to restructure. To meet the current state budget deficit, the first thing Gov. Mark Sanford recommended cutting was health insurance for needy children.
Sex offenders? Let�s keep these politicians away from our children
talkback@columbiacitypaper.com

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