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Home > Research Articles > Laws Tighten On Sex Offenders

USA TODAY

Monday, May 12, 2003

USA TODAY - May 12, 2003

A growing number of states are moving to prohibit released sex offenders from living near or visiting schools, playgrounds and other areas where children gather.

The measures build on child-abuse legislation of the mid-1990s, including federal and state ''Megan's laws'' that have made public the names of more than 450,000 convicted sex offenders. They also reflect how lawmakers across the country are heeding parents' calls for more aggressive measures to protect children.

Since Alabama acted in 1996, six other states and one city have passed laws creating ''child safety zones'' of 500 to 2,000 feet from a school's entrance. Sex offenders are banned from such areas.

Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana and Oregon have enacted laws in the past three years. And legislatures in seven other states have debated bans this year. It's unclear whether any of those will become law.

The issue flared most recently in Albuquerque. Last month, city officials passed a law that creates a 1,000-foot safety zone around schools and requires convicted sex offenders to register with their employers and landlords.

The law stems in part from Mayor Martin Chavez's determination to make it difficult for convicted sex offender David Siebers to live and work in the city.

The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the law. It says the law violates individual rights. A state court is scheduled to hear the case June 13.

''These laws are strong, and strong laws are what you need to protect children,'' says Laura Ahearn, director of Parents for Megan's Law, a Long Island, N.Y., advocacy group. ''It's not enough to simply list (sex offenders) and make their names public.''

Opponents say that besides impinging on individual rights, the laws often do not distinguish between sexual offenders who pose little threat to children and those likely to strike again.

''The fear is that the laws will make it impossible for (sex offenders) to earn livings, so they won't even make themselves known to authorities,'' says Jake Goldenflame, a San Francisco-based writer and self-described ''recovering child molester.''

Together, two federal laws -- the Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994 and Megan's law, which passed two years later -- require states to register those convicted of sex crimes against minors and to make their names public.

The laws were inspired by the stories of Jacob Wetterling, 11, who was abducted from near his Minnesota home in 1989 and was never found; and of Megan Kanka, 7, who was raped and killed in 1994 by a New Jersey neighbor who had been convicted of child molestation.

Thirty-four states now publish lists of sex offenders on the Internet, says West Trenton, N.J., lawyer John Furlong, who is writing a book on sex offender laws.

Registration laws have withstood several legal challenges.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Alaska's practice of listing offenders who were convicted before the registration requirement went into effect.

The court also approved Connecticut's listing of sex offenders without regard to their offense or to the risk that they might attack again.

But in April, an Iowa judge said that the state's ''safety zone'' law violated Iowa's constitution by limiting an offender's right to live where he wished. It appears to be the first successful challenge to such a law. The state is considering an appeal.

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Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.