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Published: Sunday, 3/30/2003

States try to tighten reins on predators

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Muddied and shivering, the girl stood in front of her father - unable to speak or even to cry.

It was her big brother who spoke for her: “Dad,” the 9-year-old boy began, “there was a man in the park.”

It's not clear whether proposed changes in Ohio's version of Megan's law would have prevented Harry Wright, a 23-year-old sexual predator, from attacking the little girl on that warm summer afternoon in a neighborhood park.

But it doesn't matter - at least not to the girl's father.

“I'd be willing to require these guys to dye their skin bright colors,” the father said, his voice cut with anger. “A scarlet letter? All the way.”

Nearly a decade after Congress mandated each state that receives federal crime-control funds to release information to the public about convicted sex offenders, there's still plenty of controversy and emotion over its fairness and its effectiveness.

And as appeals courts continually uphold even the more restrictive pieces of the states' legislation, lawmakers are further tightening the reins on offenders.

Ohio and Michigan are following suit.

In Ohio, senators passed a bill recently that would create “safe zones” around schools - making it illegal for sex offenders from establishing residences within 1,000 feet of a school.

That's longer than three football fields - more if the measurement is taken from a property line rather than the center of the school property.

As it stands now in Ohio and Michigan, Wright, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the Aug. 23, 2002, rape and other charges, would have to register with the county sheriff where he resides when he leaves prison.

A computer analysis by The Blade of Lucas County's current sex offenders shows that dozens already live in those areas. Seven live within 1,000 feet of Franklin Elementary School in East Toledo, for example, and six call home within 1,000 feet from Lagrange Elementary in North Toledo.

Among other changes, the proposed legislation also would:

  • Require offenders who cross county lines for school or work to register not only in their home county but also in the county to which they travel. The sheriffs, in turn, must notify neighbors.

  • Establish a statewide Internet site of sex offenders with their pictures. Though about 40 counties in Ohio already do so, many do not.

  • Require registration by those who have been convicted of some nonsexual crimes that involve children, such as kidnapping, and expand the definition of sexually oriented offenses.

  • Increase the penalties for violating the registry's laws from up to one year to a maximum five-year prison sentence.

  • Make it more difficult for the most dangerous offenders to be removed from the registry.

    In Michigan, proposed legislation would require offenders not only to register at their new residence but also notify the sheriff in the jurisdiction they are leaving.

    Each state has some version of a sex-offender registry under the 1994 Megan's Law, named after the New Jersey 7-year-old who was raped and killed by a twice-convicted sex offender who lived in her neighborhood.

    When states were passing their versions of Megan's Law in the 1990s, they often added language that broke new legal ground - and prompted court challenges. In one case, a judge's ruling temporarily closed down the Michigan Web site.

    Until legal questions were resolved, legislators did not want to start closing up what they were discovering were loopholes in laws, said Sen. Jeff Jacobson (R., Dayton), who introduced Ohio's latest tweaking of the law.

    “We didn't want the court to throw out the baby with the bath water,” he said of the court challenges.

    But the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down two of the most high-profile challenges to Megan's Law and “emboldened us,” Senator Jacobson said. “Now we have the constitutional backing.”

    Still, some of those in the trenches in Ohio - those responsible for actually carrying out the paperwork that's inked in Columbus - have questioned how well they will be able to enforce the law.

    Lt. Bob Bensen, of the Lucas County Sheriff's Department, has the biggest caseload of offenders in northwest Ohio: registering, sending out notifications, and tracking the county's more than 450 offenders.

    Wrapping up a shift recently, he'd spent more than six hours mailing more than 900 notifications - the postage alone was more than $218 - for the county's latest two offenders.

    The list keeps growing, he said, not only because of the multitude of offenders released from prison every day, but also because legislators change the law and cast an ever-widening net. Lawmakers in 2001 added juveniles to the sex offender list, and last year expanded notification requirements from “adjacent” neighbors to anyone within 1,000 feet. The changes hand down more work, but no money, to already-understaffed sheriff's departments, the lieutenant said.

    “They make these decisions in Columbus without really thinking things through,” he said.

    Even in rural counties, where registrants are few and neighbors are scattered, “it's going to tax us,” said Henry County Sheriff John Nye.

    The changes also may amplify the constitutional and civil liberty concerns raised when Megan's Law initially passed.

    Lori Olender is an assistant Lucas County prosecutor who handles child abuse cases and who prosecuted Wright. He has been investigated by police for a host of sexual assaults since he was 11 years old.

    Among Wright's victims: a 6-year-old boy and five girls ranging in age from 3 to 12.

    Following his arrest for the park attack and rape, at least three other girls told police Wright had grabbed them while passing on his bicycle.

    Certainly, Ms. Olender said, she supports most of Megan's Law, because it can warn citizens of dangerous predators like Wright.

    But she noted that the 1,000-feet rule might raise questions about violating federal fair housing law.

    She warned that too much emotion-driven tweaking to the law might ultimately kill it.

    “For the predators? Sure, put their name out there,” Ms. Olender said. “But we have to be careful. We start stepping on the toes of constitutional rights, we're not going to have any of this anymore.”

    With innocent lives at stake, the risk of court challenges are worth pursuing the legislation, said Rep. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati), a driving force behind Ohio's sex offender registry.

    He noted that the state already views areas around schools as “safe zones,” and forbids someone from opening a bar or discharging a firearm near a school.

    “I think it will make parents breathe easier,” he said, “knowing that the neighbors of the school where they send their kids to school aren't recently released sex offenders.



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