The abuse of a child by a sexual offender is a despicable crime, for which every parent and law enforcement officer ought to be on the alert.
Children, the most vulnerable members of society, depend on the care and wisdom of adults to protect them. It's because of that responsibility that so many state and local governments have been tightening laws relating to child molestation.
But as they go about drawing their security circles around children, these governments need to watch that they don't overreact:
• Last week, Miami Beach, Fla., banned convicted child molesters from moving to within 2,500 ft. of schools, school bus stops, day-care centers, parks, and playgrounds. It effectively bans sexual molesters from moving to the city.
• Vermont's governor is pushing to lock up certain violent criminals, including sexual offenders, in mental-health institutions indefinitely, after they've served their sentences. More than a dozen states have "civil commitment" laws for sex offenders.
• New York is considering lengthening the period that paroled sex offenders need to register their location with the state from 10 years to a lifetime. It's also looking at monitoring parolees electronically.
With measures like these, communities are applying solutions far more broadly than necessary.
The Miami Beach case, for instance, assumes that most child molesters are strangers to their victims: If the city just cordons off their children, they'll be safe. In fact, most victims are known to their abusers.
It's also important to remember that the rate of a repeat offense by a convicted child molester is low. "Sex offenders as a group have a relatively low recidivism rate. In fact, they have a lower recidivism rate than most other offenders," says John Q. La Fond, author of a new book, "Preventing Sexual Violence."
An extensive study by the Department of Justice published in 2003 shows a recidivism rate for child molesters of just 3.3 percent in the first three years. In almost half of the original offenses, the victim was the prisoner's relative.
Experts say it's possible to identify probable repeat molesters by looking at a person's history, behavior, and mental state. This argues for a selective approach, though governments might be tempted to define high-risk too broadly.
Still, instead of trying to keep tabs on every released offender, governments should target funds, personnel, and expertise to parolees in the high-risk group, monitoring them closely and working to rehabilitate them.
Public outrage and sorrow accompany cases of child sexual abuse. Governments should do all they can to prevent these crimes - and some of the predators do appear to be beyond current methods of rehabilitation. But the outrage shouldn't get in the way of trying to help the majority of abusers - many of whom were molested as children - redeem their lives.