States Are Rushing to Curb Sex Crimes

California leads way with crackdown on statutory rape, use of 'chemical castration'

Despite statistics that show a decline in rape and other violent sex crimes nationwide, a wave of preventative and punitive laws is sweeping the country to put the public at ease and sexual offenders in their place.

In the vanguard of these controversial initiatives is California. Second in the nation for unwed teenage pregnancies, the state is beefing up enforcement of rarely used statutory rape laws, cracking down on adult men who sexually exploit young girls.

Last week, California also became the first state to mandate the use of sex-drive-suppressing drugs for molesters - a move that is expected to spawn similar measures in other states despite the threat of constitutional challenges. The so-called "chemical castration" law requires repeat offenders to be periodically injected with substances shown to curb libido.

"As has happened in the past with assault and kidnapping laws, the country is racing to get tough on sexual psychopaths after a wave of high-profile cases," says Dean Wright, a professor of sociology at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and chair of a state criminal and juvenile justice advisory council. "Anything that involves sexual deviance and children hits a raw nerve and you can expect lightning-bolt reaction."

Cause of the crackdown

One lightning bolt that has spurred much of the recent legislation struck in July 1994 after the murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanda by her New Jersey neighbor, a convicted child molester.

The federal crime bill signed that year by Bill Clinton mandated states to require sexual offenders released from prison to register with law-enforcement agencies. It also encouraged states to authorize release of "relevant" information to the public when necessary for protection.

Because the law set a two-year time limit, and the deadline is up in January, states are rushing to implement various forms of registries requiring sexual offenders to notify authorities in the communities where they settle after prison so that neighbors are aware of their presence. Twenty-six states have adopted some form of registry in the past 24 months. All 50 states now have some form of registry.

"We are seeing a flurry of activity right now by states who need to make the deadline so they don't lose crime-control funds from the federal government," says Scott Matson, a researcher for the Washington state Institute for Public Policy, which tracks sex-offender registry laws.

National registry

The Clinton administration is also pushing for an FBI-administered central data-bank that tracks offenders from state to state.

"That will make it much more difficult for child predators and sex offenders to operate - because secrecy has always been a major weapon in their ability to continue," says Bob Lee, director of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, a group that supports community notification.

Legal challenges to registration in some states have led to court decisions upholding their constitutionality. Judges have found that registration is not a form of punishment and therefore not subject to eighth amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, though the practices remains controversial among civil libertarians and others.

A deeper legal and philosophical debate has been sparked by California's new so-called chemical castration statute - what many legal experts consider the most punitive child-molestation measure ever adopted in the US.

With the use of a drug called Depo-Provera, the testosterone level of subjects is supposed to be lowered, reducing sex drive. But the method is controversial both because of constitutional issues as well as differences of opinion over whether sexual predation is driven by sex urges or other causes.

"Can you force someone to take a medicine they don't want to take?" asks Albert Scheer, a law professor at Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H. "The courts will be forced to clarify."

Some states have already rejected Depo-Provera as a treatment for sexual offenders, but others may follow the California example, Mr. Scheer says.

California is also in the forefront of a drive to curb statutory rape. Last year, 16 counties split a $2.4-million grant to enforce laws prohibiting the sexual exploitation of teenage girls that have long been on the books but not used. Penalties range from probation or jail time to four years in prison.

"It's not macho to get a teenager pregnant, but if you lack the decency to understand this yourself, we'll give you a year to think about it in county jail," said Gov. Pete Wilson (R) when announcing the effort.

The campaign is part of a larger program to reduce teenage pregnancy in the state. Research shows that half of the babies born to girls age 17 and under have fathers 20 years old or older.

"If we have success here, we can pass that on to the rest of the country," says Michael Carrington, deputy director of the California Office of Criminal Justice Planning. "This is a collective national problem. All states are affected."

Curbing statutory rape

Many states are already taking action. Delaware recently passed the Sexual Predator Act, doubling the penalty for statutory rape. Georgia has also increased penalties, while Massachusetts is considering a mandatory one-year sentence when the girl is under 16 and her partner is over 18.

Florida now forces those convicted to pay child support and restitution to victims.

Despite all the attention, sex crimes aren't necessarily increasing. "There is no evidence that sexual molestation of children and incest is escalating," says Will Alexander, a research analyst for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, who has studied the issue nationwide.

"Over the past 20 years, there has been a large increase by newspapers of these kinds of offenses. But the number of such offenses themselves have remained steady. In the case of rape and other violent sex offenses, trends are down."

Though statistical methods vary from state to state, others agree that the problem is often overblown.

"A careful review ... suggests that the problem of sexual assault has been magnified and the data misinterpreted, in part because of sexual violence against women has been enmeshed in politics," says Neil Gilbert, a professor of social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley.

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