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William Elliott was 19 years old when he had sex with his girlfriend, who was two weeks shy of her 16th birthday. They were married after Elliott served four months for his offense at Maine’s Penobscot County Jail. Joseph Gray was in his early 40s when he sexually assaulted and raped a 7-year-old over the course of three years. He was sentenced to four to six years in Massachusetts state prison. Both men were on Maine’s publicly accessible Sex Offender Registry. And both were shot dead in the early-morning hours of Easter Sunday by a Canadian gunman who’d found their names — and apparently targeted them for execution — by searching the registry’s Web site. Sex offenders are all over the news these days, and Congress is primed to act — or, rather, react. The first federal law calling for state sex offender registries — the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act — was passed in 1994 and has been regularly revised since. All states as well as the District of Columbia have sex offender registries, although they differ significantly in the information they contain. But in most cases, as the Easter shootings in Maine tragically revealed, there is little in the registries to distinguish predatory pedophiles from those who were engaged in a teenage love affair with someone just a few years younger. Sexual intercourse with someone under the age of 16 is a crime in many states, no matter how young the perpetrator is. But if Congress has its way, it’s not just people like William Elliott who will end up on state registries, their home and work addresses often available to anyone who takes the time to check a Web site. Under a bill passed by the House of Representatives, juveniles in nonconsensual sex crimes would also end up on a state registry. Depending on the offense, they could remain there for life, a penalty that many child advocates say makes a transition back into society very difficult.”This flies in the face of hundreds of years of philosophy of our juvenile justice system: that kids can be rehabilitated,” notes Jill Levenson, who researches social policies designed to prevent sexual violence at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. Adds David D’Amora, who chairs the public policy committee of the Association for Treatment of Sexual Abusers: “If that passes, it will probably be the best way to assure we have people who grow into sex offenders, because we’ve identified and labeled people at their most vulnerable age and essentially given them a deviant identify for life.” THE PROMISE HR 4472, the Children’s Safety and Violent Crime Reduction Act of 2006, which passed the House on a voice vote on March 8, has a stormy history, including a similar predecessor bill whose major problem was that it contained federal hate crimes provisions, an anathema to the House GOP leadership. HR 4472 has no hate crimes language, nor does the Senate’s companion bill, S 1086, which was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. But the possibility of a hate crimes amendment still looms over the Senate bill, and that has put Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in a political bind. Proposed hate crimes legislation would allow the federal government to investigate and prosecute cases if someone is injured or murdered not only because of their race or religion, but also due to their gender, disability or sexual orientation. And while Frist is under tremendous pressure from his conservative grass-roots constituency to pass a sex offender bill, he is under equal pressure from the same groups not to pass a hate crimes statute, which many believe would further legitimize homosexuality. Democrats, however, are adamant about attaching a hate crimes amendment — already passed by the Senate in 2000 and 2004 — to the sex offender bill. Indeed, Frist tried to pass S 1086 by unanimous consent late on the evening of April 5, the day after a Department of Homeland Security spokesman was arrested and charged with 23 felony counts involving sexually graphic communications with someone he thought was a 14-year-old girl. Frist’s efforts were rebuffed by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “Democrats support the concept of this national registry,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “But we also support the concept that people who are injured, maimed, murdered as a result of hate crimes also deserve protection. We would hope we could do all this at one time.” Meanwhile, the pressure on Frist continues to build. “Bill Frist promised me,” “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh told CNN’s Larry King on April 19. “He said . . . �I will get this out of the United States Senate,’ ” added Walsh, whose 6-year-old son, Adam, was abducted from a Florida shopping mall in 1981 and later found dead. YOU ARE ON OUR LIST Most of the current federal laws dealing with the punishment of sex offenders have been drafted in response to high-profile incidents, such as the murder of Adam Walsh and the abduction of Jacob Wettlerling, an 11-year-old kidnapped in Minnesota in 1989 and still missing. Indeed, the House bill lists in its “declaration of purpose” information about 14 separate victims of “vicious attacks by violent sexual predators,” almost all of whom did not know their victims. But as horrific as those crimes were, experts say they remain extremely rare. The vast majority of sex offenses involving children occur among family members. “Child sex offenders who had a prior relationship with the victim, I would say they are 90 percent-plus on our registry,” notes David Wolinski, who spent nearly three decades as a Baltimore County police officer and now runs Maryland’s sex offender registry unit, which lists more than 4,000 people. Asked how many offenders on Maryland’s registry abducted a child they didn’t know — known generally as “stranger abduction” — Wolinski replies, “I would probably say none.” Sex offender registries are now routine and commonly accepted. But their usefulness in protecting a community against recidivist predators has never been formally validated. Some law enforcement and mental health experts say it’s possible that they can actually lull people in a community into thinking they are safer than they are. “I don’t put too much stock in the Web site,” says Wolinski. “Just because nobody’s living close to you doesn’t mean you’re safe, and just because you have a guy living down the street doesn’t mean you’re in danger. Teaching your kids about �stranger danger’ is far more effective than looking at a Web site with 4,350 names.” The main problem, for communities and for law enforcement, says Wolinski, “is that everybody’s getting swept in.” In many states, registered sex offenders include not only the teenager who sleeps with his girlfriend but also people convicted of so-called noncontact offenses like public indecency or exposure. “If everybody’s on a public registry, it dilutes the public’s ability to know who’s dangerous,” says Levenson. Some states, such as Maine, list an offender’s employer and that employer’s address, a practice the House bill would require of all states if they didn’t wish to lose 10 percent of their federal anti-crime funding. Levenson calls such information “disastrous” because it makes it that much harder for a convicted offender to find work. “And we know from decades of criminological research that the likelihood of successful re-entry into a community is based on employment stability,” Levenson says. Some jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, do not list specific addresses, just the block on which the sex offender lives, although that, too, would be discouraged by the possibility of losing the 10 percent in federal funding. “We very purposefully did not give street numbers, to give some added degree of protection to offenders,” says Patricia Riley, the former chief of the sex offense section in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District. “If you live on the street you’ll recognize the face.” Under the House bill, registered sex offenders must provide a DNA sample and, for the most egregious offenders, register in person at the local police station once a month. By the same token, local law enforcement must also verify the address of so-called tier III offenders each month, either personally or with a special mail-in form. Says Maryland’s Wolinski: “I would not be speaking out of turn to say that would be pretty burdensome for most law enforcement agencies across the country — to go to a house once a month and knock on a door and say, �Is he still here?’ “ But in the legislative frenzy to deal with the country’s worst sex offenders, which invariably affects how it treats all sex offenders, no punishment seems too onerous. “There shouldn’t be a soft spot in our hearts for those who commit crimes against children for sexual purposes,” says House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the chief author of the House bill. “The book ought to be thrown at them.”
T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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