On Jan. 2, when the 125th legislative session was still a gleam in every new legislator’s eye, the Bangor Daily News published an article titled “State to craft new sex crime laws.” Mal Leary led off with the description of legislators “bracing” for onslaught.
Oh, those sex offenders! We seem to know what to do with every other type of offender. But sex offenders, who notoriously enjoy a recidivism and probation violation rate of around 16 percent of that experienced with your average, run-of-the-mill former prisoner, evoke the shudder complex from the most compassionate among us.
One way of reducing the bracing factor in dealing with sex offenders is to educate the public concerning the level of threat posed by various categories of offense. That would, however, demand that we psychologically profile each offender, a task above the budgetary tolerance line.
So we are required to render all sex offenders 14 and older as more or less equal if we are to comply with the federal Adam Walsh Act. We create something of a lifelong leper colony for people who have been caught acting out fantasies prompted by our sex-crazed culture.
What ought to concern us more are the ones who have not yet been caught and who may be living next door.
Four of the 50 states are now in compliance with the Adam Walsh Act — South Dakota, Ohio, Delaware and Florida. Thus violation of any one of 189 sex offenses, including urinating on the sidewalk, streaking or online sex chat, will result in a lifetime registry.
Maine legislators, meanwhile, are bracing.
At stake is a cut of $166,000 to $350,000 in Byrne Justice Assistance funds to law enforcement agencies.
Thankfully, cooler heads are and have been prevailing. “We have had some serious questions about the Adam Walsh Act so far,” says veteran Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick. His former co-chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, Rep. Ann Haskell, D-Portland, adds that compliance has been a concern in many states and that change tends to be incremental.
That brings us to the ultimate in inanity — LD 8. As amended, LD 8 would permit towns with no police department to move the current 750-foot buffer between sex offender housing and schools or day care centers to 2,500 feet, or half a mile.
That affirms the public stereotype of a sex offender as a sleazy-looking, unlicensed male lurking behind bushes in the schoolyard. One veteran probation officer told me that in his 30-year career, he could think of only a handful of sex offenses that originated on school property, and all were committed by staff.
Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, a committee member and retired state trooper, is all over LD 8. “I am concerned about keeping children safe,” he avers. That sets Rep. Burns apart from the rest of us, one would suppose.
The committee verdict on the bill was a hung jury — 6-6 — and it has not yet been reported to the full Legislature. We look forward to fierce debate on the floor of the House being led by ought-to-pass advocates of this feel-good opportunity. At stake is an indeterminate fiscal report.
The fact that state legislators are “bracing” themselves ought to be cause enough for concern. The preponderance of sex offenses occur within families, carried out by family members or friends to whom it likely never occurs to lurk in the schoolyard bushes or near a day care.
They get plenty of opportunities right at home. In fact, the most common profile of a sexual predator is one who looks and acts just like the rest of us.
We could do away with the registry entirely by requiring GPS ankle monitors to be worn by all sex offenders for however long the court would deem appropriate. The savings in law enforcement man-hours would likely far exceed the loss of funds from the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program.
Adam Walsh’s dad, John, argues that we ought to scrap the registry altogether and start over.
The core problem is a public that naively believes that family members, pastors, teachers and neighbors are inherently good just because of who they are.
Perhaps we all ought to wear GPS ankle bracelets to protect each other from enablers who have failed to learn that trust is not something you earn because of who you are or where you live or how you make your living but by proving yourself to be trustworthy.
Big brother is watching!
Stan Moody of Manchester served in the Maine Legislature and was a prison chaplain.