A tussle over right to know where ex-sex offenders live

In Texas, a judge's order to post signs in their front yards sets off a legal backlash.

A Houston defense lawyer rants about the harsh treatment of sex offenders in court, but back at home he routinely checks the Internet to find out if any are living in his neighborhood.

"They've been placed in an impossible situation," he says. "But at the same time, I don't want them living next door."

The inconsistent actions of this lawyer, who has two small children, illustrate the spectrum of concerns surrounding a hot issue in American criminal justice: how to handle sex offenders who are released from prison.

Across the country, states have enacted varying degrees of restrictions for convicted sex offenders who return to society. Most agree that the public has a right to know if such an offender is living in their neighborhood - and the posting of offenders' names on the Internet, for anyone to peruse, is proving to be states' most popular tool for disseminating that information.

But one Texas lawman has taken public knowledge a step further.

Nueces County Court Judge J. Manuel Banales recently ordered 14 convicted sex offenders to place signs in their front yards reading: "Danger! Registered Sex Offender Lives Here." Under the same order, he also required bumper stickers with a similar message to be handed out.

Tilting too far?

While sex-offender rights usually garner little sympathy outside the circles of civil libertarians and defense lawyers, Judge Banales's order is creating a backlash locally and nationally.

Many see it as tipping the balance too far toward public safety at the expense of personal privacy for people who, at least in the eyes of the law, have paid their debt to society.

"There's very strong public reaction to crimes involving sex offenders," says Howard Zonana, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and chairman of a task force on sexual offenders. "That makes it hard to come up with solutions that work."

Texas law already requires sex offenders to register with local law-enforcement agencies and have their names and photos posted on the Internet. In high-risk cases, neighbors receive postcards from the Department of Public Safety.

Yet some say these protections don't go far enough.

"What the legislators were afraid to do, this judge is doing," said Carlos Valdez, Nueces County district attorney, according to press reports. "The question for public officials is a balancing test, balancing the rights of the defendants and the safety of the community. I would rather err on the side of the community."

But even the community seems taken aback by the signs. Some neighbors have said the signs leave them confused about the dangerousness of the crime, don't provide enough information, and shouldn't be there.

Online registry taken offline

Across the country, a similar battle is going on - but this one has taken a turn in the opposite direction. Last month, a federal judge ruled that the way Connecticut posts its sex-offender registry is unconstitutional and ordered that the website be taken offline. The judge's concern seems to lie in the fact that the registry doesn't classify sex offenders according to the level of the danger they pose.

"The state brought this on themselves when they decided to have a system in which everyone is lumped together without any assessment of risk and no ability to challenge placement on the list," says Philip Tegeler, legal director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, which brought the suit. "It is a blunt instrument."

The state is fighting to have the website restored, but it may be forced to change the way it presents the information.

"The irony of all this is there is not a shred of evidence that notifying the community makes it safer and cuts down on recidivism," says Jerome Miller, a psychiatrist and president of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Alexandria, Va. "But it's a politician's dream."

A Washington State study a few years ago found that public notification - over a 10-year period - made almost no difference in the rate at which sex offenders reoffend. Other studies show that certain types of sex offenders have recidivism rates well below other criminals.

"Those people are very, very treatable," says Dr. Miller. "But part of the treatment is being able to hold a job, live in a community, and put their lives back in order. This kind of thing [in Texas] does not allow for that."

Days after Banales's order, one of the 14 sex offenders overdosed on muscle relaxants and was rushed to the hospital. Family and friends said he was being kicked out of his apartment and was so distraught about having to put up the signs that he quit his job.

"We've returned to the days of the scarlet letter," says Gerald Rogen of the Coastal Bend Criminal Defense Lawyers Association in Corpus Christi. He calls the signs "cruel and unusual punishment" and worries that they put the offender and his family in danger.

Last week, Mr. Rogen appealed to Banales in the case of John Lee, one of the 14 sex offenders. Mr. Lee, on probation for indecency with a child, lives with his father and followed the judge's order by posting the sign on the door of their apartment.

A stranger pounded on the door one night, and yelled at the father when he answered. "They should hang people like you," were the stranger's words, says Rogen. By morning, the sign had been ripped off the door.

In another instance, Lee was driving his car with the court-mandated bumper sticker when a group of men in another car pointed an imaginary gun at him.

Banales refused to change his order, but allowed Rogen to appeal the case to a higher court. Rogan is confident the order will be overturned. "It's easy to pass laws that are tough on sex offenders. It makes big political points," he says. "But we are really starting to see some Draconian measures being taken."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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