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Sex-Crime Laws Draw More Flak

California case highlights tension between children's safety and offenders' privacy

California's Sonoma County, known for its vineyards and tourism, has lately acquired notoriety of a different kind. The bucolic region is at the center of a highly charged national debate over the wisdom of recent laws enacted to combat sex crimes, particularly those against children.

This week, officers from the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department distributed fliers in the town of Guerneville, alerting residents that Russell Charles Markvardsen, who has a history of sex offenses involving children, had moved in. On Sept. 3, though, the case is slated to come before a federal judge as Mr. Markvardsen mounts the first challenge to the constitutionality of California's so-called Megan's law, which requires such neighborhood notification for sex offenders judged to be high-risk.

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The case already has a tragic backdrop. Last month, another registered sex offender committed suicide in Santa Rosa, the county seat, shortly after local law enforcement officers notified a neighborhood of his presence. But police maintain there is no clear link between the public notification and that suicide - only close timing.

FOR critics of the nation's targeted assault on sex offenders in recent years, Santa Rosa is simply a vivid example of bad policy that's taking hold nationwide.

Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, says Americans are in the middle of a "child-sex panic" even though there is "no evidence the practice of sex offense is increasing" or that the recidivism rate among sex offenders is any higher than for other crimes.

Indeed, some form of Megan's law, named for a New Jersey girl murdered by a convicted sex offender in 1994, has been adopted by virtually every state. And while such laws are the most pervasive examples of action to deter sex crimes, they're not the only ones.

Montana, Georgia, and California have passed laws requiring chemical castration as a condition of parole for some sex offenders. Oregon and Virginia require blood samples from sex offenders for DNA data banks. And Kansas, along with a number of other states, has enacted laws permitting sex offenders to be detained after they serve their sentences if they're deemed dangerous and "mentally abnormal."

By all accounts, the public tide in favor of these get-tough policies remains strong. And, so far, while the courts have set some limits that civil libertarians regard as significant, most of the laws have been upheld.

Yet critics say the effectiveness of the cascade of sex-crime laws is yet to be proven, while their sometimes ugly consequences are piling up.

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In June, shots were fired into the home of a sex offender in New Jersey after the public was notified about him, underscoring the criticism of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union that such laws encourage vigilantism.

"We opposed this [Megan's] law from Day 1. It's misguided political posturing that will do nothing to reduce sex crimes in New Jersey," says New Jersey ACLU attorney David Rocah.

The New Jersey law that started the Megan's law trend was tied up in the courts for years, a process that led to amendments providing offenders with a right to challenge how they are classified, which determines the scope of public notification.

The California law makes no provision for any such procedures and was challenged on those grounds in a bid by Markvardsen's lawyers for a temporary restraining order against the leafletting by Sonoma police. While that request failed, other issues of due process and the scope and range of notification will be heard in his case in September.

Challenges elsewhere to Megan's laws have been made on the grounds that they represent a double jeopardy, or a second punishment for the same crime, and are a violation of privacy. But those claims have largely been rejected by the courts.

Stephen McAllister, a law professor at the University of Kansas and a former special assistant attorney general for that state, says Megan's laws are not unconstitutional but that the real debate over whether they amount to effective policy is just beginning.

In his view, the public has gained an enormous fear of the "stranger pedophile" from some highly publicized sex cases in recent years, even though most sex attacks on children are perpetrated by members of their own families. And while Megan's law disclosure and notification requirements may address the fear of assaults by strangers, it's unclear whether they will have any discernible impact on the overall rate of sex crimes.

In short, the trade-off comes down to whether the impact of public exposure on offenders' privacy is worth the chance it may prevent them from breaking the law again.

Southern California ACLU attorney Elizabeth Schroeder says Megan's law can be devastating to past offenders who have "done nothing wrong in 20 or 30 years."

But a spokesman for California Attorney General Dan Lungren, who is a Republican candidate for governor, says: "Megan's law is aimed at protecting citizens from the advances of sex offenders, and it's proven to be working in California."

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