Sunday, November 11, 2007

Editorial: Take care not to lose known sex offenders

The more states restrict sex offenders' movements, the more likely they are to lose track of them.

Virginia requires sex offenders to register their addresses and prohibits them from living or going anywhere near schools and day care centers. But is that enough?

Chesapeake officials think the government could go even further in protecting children from encountering child molesters. They plan to ask state lawmakers to also ban sex offenders from parks, recreation centers, community centers and maybe even libraries.

It is one of those proposals that could win broad support across the aisle; every elected official wants to shelter children from people who might harm them. So it makes sense to want to keep sex offenders away from places children are likely to be.

Unfortunately, it isn't that easy. Virginia lawmakers must exercise great caution before rushing to support Chesapeake's request, which could easily backfire.

Other states are suffering the unintended consequences that came after their best-intended laws to further restrict the movements of sex offenders. The more prohibitive these laws are, the more likely that sex offenders can't comply -- even those who wish to. Rather than register their actual addresses that fall within restricted zones, they drop off the registries or declare themselves homeless.

California, which enacted tougher laws last year, is now discovering what Iowa and Florida experienced: They created an underclass of wandering sex offenders whose whereabouts are unknown.

"We could potentially be making the world more dangerous rather than less dangerous" Gerry Blasingame, past chairman of the California Coalition on Sexual Offending, told the Associated Press.

Virginia has encountered problems in keeping track of sex offenders under existing laws. Additional restrictions will make law enforcement's task all the more difficult.

Chesapeake officials want to insulate children as best they can, but expanding the list of prohibited public places could encourage more sex offenders to try to slip away unnoticed.

Better to know where sex offenders are than to set them wandering, and to remember that children are more vulnerable to assault by someone they know rather than a stranger encountered in a park or a library.

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