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May 15, 2010

Shouldn't we try to make it is easy for sex offenders to know of legal restrictions?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting Washington Post piece, which is headlined "Sex offenders, advocates push for Va. law notice." Here are excerpts:

When Robert Beckwith was preparing to leave federal prison after 11 years, he knew his label as sex offender would mean there were certain places he couldn't visit or live. He had no idea it would be so difficult to find that information.

In April, the 53-year-old Beckwith left prison in Massachusetts and headed to a northern Virginia homeless shelter. Beckwith wrote to the Virginia attorney general's office asking for help and was directed to Virginia State Police, which administers the sex offender registry. He wrote to the state police twice with no answer.

"I feel like I'm being set up to fail," said Beckwith, who was convicted of having sex with an underage girl on a military base.

Unlike some states, Virginia doesn't provide its 16,500 registered sex offenders with a list of restrictions on where they can live, work and play. Instead, registered offenders must search state websites to determine how to comply with laws meant to keep them away from schools, parks and other places where children could congregate.

Officials say it would be too costly to provide copies of the laws to all offenders and that the websites are sufficient.

Wayne Bowers, director of the Sex Abuse Treatment Alliance in Oklahoma, said by not informing sex offenders of the laws, states are opening the door for individuals to fail -- and reoffend. "If these people fail, that means there is going to be another victim," he said.

Notification laws vary across the nation. Some states, like New Mexico, spell out the restrictions on a website, while others, such as North Carolina and Indiana, require offenders to read over a list of the laws and sign that they understand it while in the presence of a law enforcement officer....

Just like with other laws, sex offenders can't claim ignorance. If they are caught too close to a school, park or, in several states, a church, they could be charged with a felony and sent back to prison. Failing to register on time also is a felony.

And while lawmakers are quick to add to the list of restrictions for sex offenders, few are willing to pass laws that favor a group so generally despised. A bill to require Virginia State Police to give offenders a list of restrictions has failed the past two years. Meanwhile, about a dozen new restrictions or enhanced penalties were enacted.

"It's not a luxury to know these rules, it's critical to success and for public safety," Reform Sex Offender Laws of Virginia founder Mary Devoy wrote to legislators after they adjourned in March without bringing the bill up for a vote in committee....

Listing the laws on the state police website isn't practical since not everyone on the registry has access to a computer, Devoy said. Also, in some localities, such as Virginia Beach, registered sex offenders are not allowed to have Internet access. It would be better if the information was included in the certified packet of information each offender receives in the mail each year, she said.

The Department of Corrections informs and trains probation and parole officers about changes to the law, but it does not provide offenders with any lists, said department spokesman Larry Traylor.

Beckwith said he doesn't understand why the state isn't more willing to help those who are wanting to obey the law. "There are some who want a second chance at a decent life," he said. "Giving them the information could be the key."

There is a particular Kafkaesque quality to the prospect that some sex offenders may need to get on the internet in order to learn that there is a law prohibiting them from getting on the internet.  Even more importantly, if a jurisdiction decides that it is important for sex offenders avoid certain areas or activities, it would seem also to be important for the jurisdiction to make sure sex offenders know these realities.  If a jurisdiction cannot afford to provide effective information to impacted persons about a new law, perhaps it cannot truly afford to have the new law in the fist instance.

May 15, 2010 at 04:07 PM | Permalink


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I would think that at some point when government actively makes it impossible to know the law that ignorance should in fact be an excuse for not following it.

Making offenders sign papers spelling out the restrictions and that they understand those restrictions seems like a great idea. It seems like that level of knowledge would make convicting violators far easier.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 15, 2010 5:20:39 PM

no everyone knows that the entire point of the sex offender registration and restrictions isto get those icky pervs back in prison before they molest another child. letting them know the law will just make it more difficult to imprison them on a pretext ;)

in all seriousness, the secret nature of the restrictions does seem to raise some due process problems. perhaps a good money making opportunity for an enterprising rent seeking attorney would be to write such a guide.

oopsie, guess i shouldn't have given my idea away. of course, i'm not even sure if i could stand to write such a guide - contrary to what supremacy claus thinks, my feminism at times conflicts with the rent seeking instincts

ginny :)

Posted by: virginia | May 15, 2010 5:29:46 PM

Joking or not virginia, on a certain level, I think your first point is closer to the truth than any lawmaker would ever admit.

As it was pointed out, new laws to restrict the activities of these individuals are cranked out with ease. Prohibiting offenders from buying cabbage would probably pass if anyone tried to include it in a bill.

Lawmakers, media, and law enforcement groups have spent a great deal of time and energy into presenting offenders as those that are dangerous and are only let out because there is no other choice. By making it difficult to find a solid set of rules, it's an easy way to put them back behind bars. As a result, the groups mentioned can come out and say that these types can't stay out of trouble and that initial sentences should be stiffer.

I may come across as overly distrustful of certain groups but I'm fine with that. Their laws and ad campaigns justify a certain amount of distrust.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 15, 2010 11:42:06 PM

Ginny: To review, in rent seeking, armed government goons take your hard earned money. They give it politically favored group, and you get nothing in return. The saying goes, if you rob Peter to pay Paul, you have earned half the votes.

You propose to spend your time, which means irretrievable lifespan, legal skill, humor, writing artistry, and great, perky personality to write a book. This book will prevent imprisonment. It may prevent additional victimization. But surely, it will prevent a whole lot of lawyer procedure to litigate mistaken violations and their defenses. Next, you may develop a PDA app that sounds an alarm whenever the GPS says it is approaching a restricted are. You are adding tremendous value to many groups, all of whom are willing to pay well for this benefit to them. When great benefit is derived from your adding value, and people willingly pay high fees for it, that is called profit seeking.

As to feminism, you tell me. If I say, there is great value in protecting little girls from rape, mutilation and murder, is that a sexist statement? Males must do that, especially fathers. Is that a sexist statement? One of the most common scenarios of abuse, including, forcible rape and murder is to have a step father do it. The stepfather can because the prior family has been broken by excessive, insane female entitlement, taught to females by feminist lawyers. The losses and tragedies from that scenario can be traced back to left wing feminism. The left wing feminist I bet opposes the death penalty for little girl rapists and serial killers. They want the government jobs to guard, support, and embolden the serial killer.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 16, 2010 12:09:20 AM

While I know and understand that sex offenders aren't exactly a group that's likely to engender sympathy and advocacy even from liberals, it seems to me that the point is that we shouldn't be pushing for a system that's setting these people up for recidivism or going off the grid.

Of course, as others have mentioned, legislation that makes things harder on sex offenders (or any other group of unpopular individuals, for that matter) is popular with voters and so I would imagine that this sort of thing will continue - not that it will necessarily be for the benefit of society, but that's politics, isn't it?

There also does seem to be a big due process issue. If an offender literally cannot have access to the information that would prevent him from violating the law (such as the case if an offender cannot access the internet), then how in the hell are they expected to live within the bounds -- both figurative and metaphorical -- that society has decreed proper? I understand that ignorance of the law is generally not a defense, but if you're literally not permitted to know what that law is, even if you want to know...well, I don't see how a court could sustain a conviction on those facts. But that's just my .02.

Posted by: Guy | May 16, 2010 12:12:49 AM

i agree. but i never in my wildest dreams ever though i would see a day in america that it would even be LEGAL to restrict a citizens movements except for reasons of national security. Then to top of it to actully make the restictions then NOT post the areas that are in fact restriction.

Would be about as retarded and ILLEGAL as putting up a military base with no fencing or posted signs then trying to prosecute a citizen who ended up on the base.

But the main reason they won't do that or post the information on an easy to access location. After all that is the main reason the registry existes in the first place...is to make PUBLIC information Easier to access.

If the american people ever woke up to just how bad these laws have come and how ILLEGAL these politcians would be dead!

Posted by: rodsmith | May 16, 2010 12:43:47 AM

of cousrse it also hard to make a list when you CHANGE it every 3-6 months with a whole new set of restrictions.

Posted by: rodsmith | May 16, 2010 12:44:48 AM

Soronel: "I would think that at some point when government actively makes it impossible to know the law that ignorance should in fact be an excuse for not following it."

Careful. Thinking like that could stymie volumes of statutes prosecutors routinely turn to or embelish these days to imprison lots of citizens who had no idea they were doing anything wrong until the feds came knocking.

Posted by: John K | May 16, 2010 11:44:39 AM

Posted by: John K | May 16, 2010 11:44:39 AM

I have no problem saying that getting a conviction should be harder than it currently is. I also believe, however, that once a conviction is obtained the offender should receive far fewer protections than are currently present. This belief remains even where, as here, a new conviction would only be possible due to prior misconduct.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 16, 2010 12:00:57 PM


Are you saying that even offenders who have served their sentences, have expressed remorse for their crimes, etc., should be provided fewer protections under the law than others? Isn't the idea that once you serve your sentence you've paid your debt, so to speak? If the system is set up such that the debt is never paid, what incentive is there for reintegration other than simply avoiding future punishment?

Posted by: Guy | May 16, 2010 5:50:33 PM

In Ohio, sex offenders are notified of what their registration requirements are (but maybe not all of their restrictions). They are not however notified of what to do if they find themselves homeless, even though the statute clearly sets this out. I have recently filed a motion in a failure to register case and a failure to verify case that asks for the court to make the failures inadmissible as they were not notified as was the requirement in the statute. Hopefully it works. The current system does set these people up to fail. They have a hard time getting housing and don't know what to do once they lose any housing they do have. Then they get another conviction on their record. The second such conviction requires mandatory time.

Posted by: Erin Downs | May 16, 2010 6:35:51 PM

Interesting. I am working in corrections. Sex offenders are usually released on probation, parole, or supervised release. As a result they are given all their conditions at the time of release. Now there may be some areas that are not included in those conditions, something that legally changed while they were in prison. Community supervision officers are suppose to tell them about these changes and their conditions. The bar on the Internet occurs in some states. The Internet restrictions, are being whittled away by may courts as too much. Afterall, more and more of society is depending upon computer/Internet access. Consider how many job applications have to be done online. Banking, filing taxes etc. In a nutshell, no Internet/computer use is going to be hard to justify but for the most serious of offenders (who should be behind bars anyway). For those sex offender's released, we will see computer/Interet use allowed...but MONITORED use.. see http://www.corrections.com/articles/23722

Posted by: AB | May 16, 2010 10:30:30 PM

Seems everyone misses the point. From what I can remember, when the Jacob Wetterling Act was signed, these laws were meant to protect kids from those who will always have a propensity to molest kids, yes? Anyone that believes that laws are passed as a deterrent is living in a fantasy world. That being said, there MUST be a way for those who have been free of conviction for another sexual offense to get off the list. I personally want to know who I have to keep my 11-year-old away from. passing more and more acts, laws and regulations only impedes the purpose of registration.

Posted by: Huh? | May 18, 2010 9:59:10 PM

actualy if you go back and look when the " Jacob Wetterling Act" was signed it was to track the WORSE OF THE WORST! Violent or REPEAT offenders PERIOD!

Posted by: rodsmith | May 19, 2010 1:14:01 AM

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