Friday, December 08, 2006

Law Bad? Beware of Your Texas Legislators

How bad laws are made: this comment tells all. Quoted in full from OfftheKuff

[hat tip sex crimes]

What to do with sex offenders
The following was forwarded to me by a reader. I thought it was provocative. I present it here in the interest of starting a conversation.

Warning to Texas residents: a group of individuals, still at large, poses an imminent threat to the public. Several thousand Texas citizens may be at risk if the activities of these people are not monitored more closely. Registered sex offenders, you say? No, actually I am referring to the elected members of the Texas Legislature, who will soon meet in Austin for the 80th legislative session.

Several bills have been pre-filed for the session which opens in January, ostensibly with the intent of protecting Texas children from the clutches of the 45,000+ registered sex offenders currently residing in Texas. Our elected officials, certainly all honorable and well-intentioned people interested in serving the public interest, want us to believe these bills will protect us and our children from harm.

To the contrary, most of the provisions of these bills are “smoke and mirrors”, an illusion designed to create the appearance of concern and activity by your elected representatives. Our elected officials, with access to current academic and Justice Department research and statistics, know that - but they are hoping we won’t find out. Otherwise, we voters might actually demand that they do their homework and provide some real solutions.
Beyond being of illusory value, the bills contain provisions that are blatantly unconstitutional, in direct violation of several fundamental principles of constitutional law in this country - principles like due process, equal protection, protection against double jeopardy and uncompensated property takings. Registered sex offenders - though convicted of felonies and misdemeanors - still remain citizens protected by our Constitution.

Our legal system requires due process - hearings, evidence, opportunity for judicial review. It provides that all citizens have equal access to our courts. It requires that individuals may not be punished more than once for an offense, no matter how heinous. Once served, a sentence of incarceration or probation cannot lawfully be extended or additional conditions of punishment imposed by another legislative body or even a court. And the total use of property cannot be denied absent just compensation for its value. These are fundamental, time-tested, basic principles that govern how our legal system is supposed to work.

But some Texas legislators, despite their sworn oath to uphold the constitution, apparently do not believe these principles apply here or at least to some citizens of Texas. Legislators will soon be taking up several proposed laws that will create “child safety zones” around schools, parks, day-care centers and similar place where children gather. Registered sex offenders will not be permitted to walk or even drive within 1,000 feet of these facilities.

More draconian still is a provision to restrict where registered sex offenders can reside in our communities, prohibiting them from living within 2,500 feet of places where children gather. Those offenders already living within that radius - even homeowners and long- time residents who have not presented a threat in the past, probably even some nursing home residents - will be forcibly evicted or face incarceration.

These provisions would not just be applied to new offenders being released from prison, but also to current parolees and those who have already served their sentences and are no longer under court jurisdiction. Some have been off of probation for years, living as law-abiding neighbors and friends in our communities. But they will all have to move elsewhere. Thousands of Texas citizens face the prospect of being literally banished from their homes and families by legislative action - a practice unheard of and considered morally and legally unthinkable in this nation until only recently. No court hearing, no evidence of a crime, no appeal. These are authoritarian governmental abuses that all of us ought to vigorously oppose.

It would appear that there would be no lawful way to comply with these residency restrictions, as onerous as the proposals are. Even if an offender lived in a rural area, say on a 500-acre farm in the Hill Country, the bills would measure the distance restrictions from the property line of the farm to the nearest school or bus stop. How many parts of Texas, aside from the isolated mountainous and desert areas of the west, are more than 2,500 feet from a school or school bus stop location?

So where will these people go in September 2007 if these bills are passed? Well, since they cannot lawfully comply with the laws, they will probably hide. A few may choose to leave the state, as is no doubt the obvious intention of lawmakers - make these people someone else’s problem. But many of them have families, homes and jobs here in Texas. So they will just live elsewhere, hoping not to be found, costing us lots of tax dollars to seek them out and punish them for breaking a law against something that was not a crime in the first place.

Iowa recently passed a similar law and the rate of non-compliance with that state’s sex offender registration statute jumped by 300%. The Iowa County Attorneys Association, the people in charge of actually enforcing that statute, is now opposed to residency restrictions that were enacted there and are being proposed here in Texas. The unintended consequence of what was probably an honest and well-intentioned effort turned out to be worse than the problem they were trying to solve.

California recently passed a similar law by public referendum and it was immediately halted by a federal judge because its provisions were in obvious violation of our constitution. A similar federal court challenge will surely be filed here if the bills pass as proposed.
The academic and law enforcement research does not support the effectiveness of these restrictions. Several prominent research groups - including child abuse prevention advocacy groups hardly sympathetic to sex offenders - have concluded that there is no statistical link between restricting the residence of registered sex offenders and the incidence of sexual assault cases.

More importantly, the proposed bills ignore the faulty theory behind sex offender registration in the first place. Let me clear up a very common misconception - most registered sex offenders don’t commit repeat offenses. Recent research by the federal Department of Justice has indicated a recidivism rate of between 4 and 15 %, lower than for most other categories of major crimes. And here is the really startling fact: by far, most sexual assaults of a child are committed by a parent, other family member or family acquaintance, not the registered offender living down the street. Most of the people on the list of registered offenders served their time, paid their debt to society and just want to be left alone.

Our elected officials do not want us to be aware of or understand these facts. They want us to be fearful enough to trust that they are looking out for us. Do not be deceived by this group of people - a group representing a direct threat to the liberty and lives of thousands of law-abiding, tax-paying, voting citizens. Citizens just like me.

What do you think? Let me know.
Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 07, 2006

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