Opinion

The sex-offender bill

Defenders of a new state sex offender bill say it will help limit access of abusers to children. However, it seems more likely to produce a false sense of security and might even increase the likelihood of sexual molestation.

The bill, signed into law by Gov. Mark Sanford this week, limits sex offenders who have victimized children younger than 16 from living within 1,000 feet of schools, day-care centers, children's recreational facilities, parks and playgrounds. Similar laws have been adopted in other states, including Georgia, which prohibits sex offenders from living near churches, public libraries and school bus stops.

Several human rights groups have challenged the Georgia law in federal court, saying the restrictions are unfair to people who already have paid for their crimes under the law. But a more realistic reason to oppose such laws is that they seem unlikely to do much good and might ultimately increase the risk to children.

Critics argue that limiting where sex offenders live does little to prevent them from seeking out potential victims. Thus, the laws are apt to create a false sense of security in parents.

The critics also note that the overwhelming majority of sexually abused children are victimized by people they know -- a family member or family friend, teachers, church officials or others who routinely come into contact with children. This law does nothing to diminish that risk.

Ironically, the strict limitations on where sex offenders can live might inadvertently increase the risk. Convicted sex offenders might elect to go underground and not register at all, making it more difficult to track their whereabouts and increasing the likelihood of subsequent offenses.

This bill spawned another controversy. Sanford said he signed the bill only reluctantly because he objected to an amendment that reduced the first-offense penalty for sex offenders who fail to register.

The penalty under the original version of the bill was up to 90 days in jail. Under the new version, the penalty is 30 days and/or a $500 fine.

But the amendment was designed to streamline the process and reduce the cost of enforcing it. Under the amendment, the state's magistrates, not solicitors, will handle the cases. That means less expense, quicker sentencing and fines that can be used to allay the cost of trying cases.

Solicitors say most first-time offenders who fail to register do so out of neglect, not because they are trying to evade the system. Solicitors would rather deal with the repeat offenders who likely are to pose a bigger threat.

It is easy enough to endorse any and all efforts to crack down on sex offenders. It is harder, however, to support only the laws that really work.

We doubt this one amounts to much more than window dressing and might, in the end, do more harm than good.

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