Sex-offender mania takes another hit

Sex-offender residency laws in New York state continue to take a drubbing.
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Sex-offender residency laws in New York state continue to take a drubbing. First it was Rockland County’s law that got clobbered, then Rensselaer County’s, and now Albany County’s.

The way our court system is configured, similar laws in Saratoga and Schenectady as well as many other counties remain on the books, waiting for the Appellate Division and perhaps ultimately the Court of Appeals to have a higher say, but it’s pretty clear they have no future.

Not because they are silly and counter-productive but simply because they are “pre-empted” by state law.

The state has its own Megan’s Law regulating the activities of convicted sex offenders, and the Division of Parole has its own regulations on where they may live, therefore localities cannot presume to intrude on that territory and adopt their own laws and regulations, especially if they conflict with the state’s. It’s the doctrine of pre-emption.

There is no doctrine of idiocy or these local laws might have had a harder time of it from the get-go. They were the product of a popular hysteria cynically nurtured by elected officials, with no demonstrable relation to crime prevention — Do we bar bank robbers from living near banks? — but they were wonderfully popular a couple of years ago.

Every town board and county legislature wanted to demonstrate its eagerness to protect children, so they competed with each other in barring people who had been convicted of sex offenses from living within 1,000 feet or 2,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, daycare centers, parks, swimming pools and so forth, on the premise that sex criminals — predators, they called them — were people of uncontrollable impulses who would necessarily do it again.

Never mind if the first offense had been against a child or against an adult. Never mind, even, the gravity of the offense or how long the person had led a straight, crime-free life since getting out of the slammer. Never mind studies by the U.S. Department of Justice showing sex offenders had a lower recidivism rate than other types of criminals. They were all equally predators, all equally to be banished.

Where they were to go, where they were to live was not a consideration. (In Miami-Dade, Fla., they famously live under a bridge.)

It was like a Fourth of July parade for local politicians, and with one or two honorable exceptions, they were absolutely busting with righteousness. They were, after all, protecting children.

Now they are understandably reluctant to see the parade end, and some of them are calling on the state Legislature to adopt statewide the same sort of measures that won them so much glory locally. If the state is going to pre-empt the locals, then the state should do it right, which is to say irrationally, like us, and not with any namby-pamby regard for where the phantasmagoric predators will find shelter, or work, or social services, such as Gov. Paterson has suggested.

So we’ll see how this plays out. I don’t believe we’re finished.

WORD WATCH

On the human servitude front, I was alarmed to see the report on CNN’s Web site that President Obama, on his recent African trip, “visited the Cape Coast Castle, a British outpost where slaves were held until shipped overseas, along with his daughters.”

I had known nothing about it.

Categories: Opinion

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