Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Imperfect solutions and unintended consequences

The New York Times has an article today that is a useful reference point for Wisconsinites. It is on Iowa's attempt to ban sex offenders from living within 2000 feet of schools. On the surface, I would applaud this effort by Iowa. There was a sex offender living in my neighborhood, just blocks from an elementary school, and at first I was incensed that this was possible. As I started to think about it, though, I started to see what the Times reports as Iowa's problem:
The men have flocked to the Ced-Rel and other rural motels and trailer parks because no one else will, or can, have them. A new state law barring those convicted of sex crimes involving children from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day care center has brought unintended and disturbing consequences. It has rendered some offenders homeless and left others sleeping in cars or in the cabs of their trucks.

And the authorities say that many have simply vanished from their sight, with nearly three times as many registered sex offenders considered missing since before the law took effect in September.

"The truth is that we're starting to lose people," said Don Vrotsos, chief deputy for the Dubuque County sheriff's office and the man whose job it is to keep track of that county's 101 sex offenders.

I had looked at the situation in my town. If sex offenders were forbidden from living within 1000 or 2000 feet of a school (let alone daycares, playgrounds, etc), it would virtually force them out of the city. While that is appealing, it only serves to pass the problem off on somebody else.

The other problem with laws like this is that they motivate sex offenders to disappear. Even sex offenders have to live somewhere, whether we like it or not. When living space becomes difficult to find because of government regulation, you are going to lose track of a lot of sex offenders who want to be lost so they can find a place to live. Believe me, I have zero sympathy for sex offenders, but I would much rather that the government not force them underground because that reduces the authorities' ability to keep track of them, which is an important part of prevention.

As I looked at my neighborhood's problem, I decided that the best way to handle the issue is to be involved in your own neighborhood. Know who the sex offenders are and where they live. Keep an absolute eagle eye on them. If you get a bad feeling about anything, don't hesitate to report it. This was influenced by what did happen in my neighborhood. The closest sex offender to my home (and his wife) seemed to have a lot of kids at their house, many more than their own. Somebody noticed and reported it. It turns out they were running an illegal daycare and both are now up on charges (no children were abused, thankfully). Government should be done as close to the individual as possible, and I believe that the montoring of sex offenders is one thing best done at the neighborhood level. Shucking the problem off to rural areas does not solve the problem, and it does not prevent sex offenders from re-offending. It only hands the problem off to others and in a way lessens the local observation of these depraved criminals.

I don't want these people in my neighborhood any more than the next guy, but there are a lot of them out there. It is a practical and geographic impossibility to segregate them from the community. Just look at the Times graphic on how few locations there are in Dubuque for sex offenders to live. Given that, the only realistic solution that I can see is very active and involved neighborhoods.

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