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January 29, 2009

Better off dead?

The potential consequences of severe residency restrictions for sex offenders is highlighted by this news story out of Michigan, headlined "Man found dead in cold was turned away from shelters in past because he was sex offender."  Here are the basics:

A man found dead on the streets Monday had tried in recent weeks to gain admittance to at least one of two Heartside missions, but was denied a bed because he is a registered sex offender.

Officials say its possible Thomas Pauli might be alive today except for a state law prohibiting him from establishing a residence even for one night within 1,000 feet of a school, in this case, Catholic Central High, also located in the Heartside district.

[Mission directors] decried a system where there are no exceptions to the so-called Megan's Law, which sets boundaries and restrictions for those on the list. "We have to follow the law, but ethically, it feels like were responsible," said [Bill] Merchut.  Added [Bill] Shaffer, "These men and women are clearly 'The Scarlet Letter' folks of our day. And where do they go? I have no answer."

Pauli, 52, served 11 years in prison for a 1991 conviction in Grand Traverse County for second-degree criminal sexual conduct, state records show.  He was released in 2003 and was required to register as a sex offender.

This related commentary raises all the important questions in the wake of this tragedy:

So is this what it finally takes for us to hear the muffled cries of the homeless -- an ex-con dead in the snow because it's against the law for a sex offender to huddle up at either of two Grand Rapids missions?

Thomas Pauli didn't choose to die alone in the cold.  He apparently froze to death because of a crime he committed nearly 20 years ago, and a law that's dogged him ever since his release from prison.

January 29, 2009 at 08:36 AM | Permalink


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On a somewhat related note, I was rather shocked to see a listing on the Virginia Sex Offender Registry where one of the sex offender's registered home address was listed as "Wal-Mart Parking Lot."

Its a sad situation where the sex offender panic has resulted in such cases. There is no way that having sex offenders being homeless and out of shelter promotes the public interest - instead, it will lead to more preventable tragedies.

Posted by: Zack | Jan 29, 2009 10:51:40 AM

Shame on us all. It isn't enough that we mindlessly and ferociously incarcerate sex offenders for draconian terms. Even when they have been released, in our self-righteous piety, we hound them to their icy graves.

Posted by: Michael Levine | Jan 29, 2009 11:00:39 AM

"Wal-Mart Parking Lot"!!!! I'm outraged. Parents take their kids with them to Wal-Mart all the time, and there's probably even a McDonalds in that Wal-Mart. I bet you this guy intentionally lives there to be close to kids!!! We need to relocate this guy, and fast.

Posted by: DEJ | Jan 29, 2009 11:29:25 AM

Michael, your invective is misplaced. What reaction did you expect after predictable tragedies like that of Megan Kanka? I agree that sex offender registries need to be tweaked and that some of them sweep up non-dangerous sex offenders or are overly harsh. But the reality is that we as a society are trying to figure out how to deal with predators in our midst, predators who cause untolled pain and heartache.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 29, 2009 12:00:39 PM

"What reaction did you expect after predictable tragedies like that of Megan Kanka?"

Alas, anyone hoping for a reaction both rational and productive was disappointed.

When law enforcement agencies from a state with residency restrictions testify before the lawmakers of other states--asking those states to OPPOSE residency restrictions... When victim advocacy groups ask a state supreme court to OPPOSE residency restrictions... When logic alone would call folks danged silly for thinking keeping a sex offender away from a school during NON-school hours is at all helpful... When all those pieces are in place, it's time for grown-ups to step up and say actually protecting children is a far sight more important than making each other Feel Better, or making sure Sex Offenders Pay, or whatever today's excuse for the law might be.

Posted by: Rika | Jan 29, 2009 1:01:49 PM

"What reaction did you expect after predictable tragedies like that of Megan Kanka?"

That's exactly why legislating on the basis of anecdotes, however tragic, is almost always misguided and leads to unintended consequences.

Posted by: anon | Jan 29, 2009 1:18:45 PM

federalist. You make a valid point; Megan was a really tragedy. But there is such a concept as "overreaction". It's true there are predators in our midst but when we overact to that situation we are not making things better, we are making them worse. What about the pain and untold tragedy that results when a person stumbles upon some kiddie porn on Limewire, for whatever psychological reasons gets caught up in the moment, downloads it to their computer, doesn't have have the smarts to know how to hide it, gets busted by the FBI and then dies in a Wal-mart parking lot. That is a real tragedy too. And a preventable one at that. And what makes it worse was that the people who passed these laws were our so-called leaders who can and did know better but didn't care.

I don't think what happened to Megan was right. But IMHO our reaction to it as a society was just as bad as the original crime.

"I agree that sex offender registries need to be tweaked and that some of them sweep up non-dangerous sex offenders or are overly harsh."

My honest question to you is this: if you believe that, have you contacted your mayor, your state senator, and your national center to express those views?

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 29, 2009 1:46:48 PM

Rika and anon, first of all, Kanka was by no means an isolated problem, and I think you know it. Second, you guys criticize us for reacting to a tragedy--well aren't you doing the same thing here.

And I agree with you that some of these laws are overbroad and counterproductive.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 29, 2009 1:54:24 PM

Ah, federalist. How I've missed the debate.

How about this?

"Under a 2005 Minnesota statute, the state correctional commissioner is required to develop a risk assessment scale for use by administrative law judges. The scale assigns weights to various risk factors including the age of the offender, the age and relationship to the victim, the availability and level of social and family support for the offender, prior history, educational attainment, and access to therapeutic treatment. These factors determine the risk assessment score. A low-risk offender, or tier I offender, for example, could be someone who was convicted of a single nonviolent sex offense, such as having consensual sex with an underage teen, and who is supported by family."


In terms of compromise, how about a private registry (or public, I guess) for offenders who meet an administrative tribunal's standard for determining likelihood to reoffend? Preserve individualized risk assessment. And tie that to the residency restrictions as well.

Sounds like a plan to me.

Posted by: Alec | Jan 29, 2009 2:31:43 PM

Alec, does the name Dru Sjodin ring a bell?

Posted by: federalist | Jan 29, 2009 3:27:19 PM

I understand that indecent exposure (like public urination) will get you on the sex offender registry for life. Has anyone run a marathon recently?

Posted by: Stanley Feldman | Jan 29, 2009 7:57:56 PM

"Second, you guys criticize us for reacting to a tragedy--well aren't you doing the same thing here."

No, not merely reacting to a tragedy. Rather, pointing out the previous list objections to the laws that brought us to the man's death. There is a pile of information, research, and statistics available proving the utter lack of redeeming qualities possessed by residency restrictions. It isn't a new thought engendered by tragedy. That's the difference between logical thought and emotional reaction.

You're familiar with the name Jacob Wetterling, I presume? His mother fought to enact the first "official" sex offender registry. She has said for years that residency restrictions are foolish. Ditto law enforcement agencies in Iowa, where the res-res ball got rolling.

To excuse support of the laws--laws that are shown to increase the risk of recidivism, by the way--with a "What do you expect?" attitude is precisely what keeps the goal of actual prevention locked in the closet.

Posted by: Rika | Jan 29, 2009 8:49:12 PM

Federalist doesn't give a rat's ass about prevention. Only punishment, on the pretense of caring about crime victims.

Posted by: DK | Jan 29, 2009 10:11:24 PM

But punishment is what we are all here for; it's in the Old Testament, don't you know. . .

Posted by: Mark | Jan 30, 2009 12:44:35 AM

I am a convicted felon for a charge known as Wire Tapping back in 2001,,,I did 2 days in jail and 1 1/2 years probation. I have 4 children in which 2 of them i pay support for, I have no problem paying support for my children. However since my conviction nearly 9 years ago i havent been able to get a job or any kind of funding to go to school. I feel as though everytime i submit an application i am being punished for haveing a felony. How am i supposed to move forward when i am always getting shoved back. I feel as if the only solution is to eliminate myself. I love my children very much and i know they love me too, but i feel as though they are suffering with me because i cant support them they way they need to be. I have talked with attorneys and also with the police in regards to an expungment or even a clearance on this charge but because i am still young (34) they claim there isnt anything that can be done. Does anyone have a better solution than mine.

Posted by: Matt | Oct 1, 2009 9:48:58 PM

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