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U.S. News

Sex offender laws do more harm than good: report

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. laws informing communities where former sexual offenders live do little to protect children, but can lead to harassment and violence against the offenders, a Human Rights Watch report said on Wednesday.

The laws are ill conceived because children are more at risk of sexual abuse from a family member or trusted friend of the family than from a former sexual offender, Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch, told reporters on a conference call.

“Stranger danger is not the norm,” Fellner said about community fears of repeat attacks by sexual offenders. Government studies show that 90 percent of sexual attacks are committed by family members or trusted friends, he said.

All U.S. states have publicly accessible online sex registries that provide photographs and current addresses of former sex offenders. HRW said the so-called Adam Walsh Act, signed last year by U.S. President George W. Bush, will increase the scope and duration of registration and community notification restrictions.

Some 22 states also have laws restricting where offenders can live, and hundreds of communities have broadened exclusion zones from 1,000 feet to 2,500 feet.

The laws can violate basic human rights of former offenders by making it difficult for them to find work and a place to live, the report said

In many states, anyone can access online registries that list where sex offenders live, which can lead to harassment by community members. In at least one case, a former offender was killed by community members, said the report titled “No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the United States.”

When the offenders can’t find a place to live, they can be forced to move to obscure places far from family, therapy and police surveillance, said Fellner.

Sometimes registration covers everyone convicted of a sexual crime, including people unlikely to attack children such as those convicted of consensual sex with a teenager, it said. More than 600,000 people are registered, including those convicted of nonviolent crimes, it said.

Human Rights Watch urged reform of state and federal registration laws as well as community notification laws, and the elimination of residency restrictions, saying they violate basic rights of former offenders.

“We have let politicians get away with focusing on these laws as the only way to stop the problem,” said Fellner, who said public attention should be shifted to “where sexual violence is happening. Often it’s happening in the home.”

But cases such as the 2005 rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who was snatched from her Florida home and buried alive in a garbage bag, have grabbed headlines. John Evander Couey, who had been required to register as a sex offender before the crime, confessed to the killing and a Florida judge in August sentenced him to death.

Steve Roddel, the creator of a sex offender registry called www.familywatchdog.us, said the laws should not be changed exactly because of the high potential of sexual abuse in the home. “Some women have found through these registries that their husbands or fiancees are sex offenders,” he said.

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