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FL: Does Law Stop Sex Crimes?

December 26, 2000

Law officers say repeat offenses are down because neighbors know when a sex offender is nearby, but no study shows the recidivism rate is down.

More than 30 sexual predators and offenders live in ZIP code 33605, the area around the Port of Tampa and Palmetto Beach. On this unseasonably warm Friday, a new predator has just moved in.

Damion Demon Jones, 20, notified his probation officer and Tampa police that he is moving to 2201 N 23rd St. Now police have 48 hours to tell his new neighbors and all the day care centers and schools in the area.

Firehouse Officers Skyp McCaughey and Manny Martinez are supposed to notify the schools and centers. They know the drill. In their usual area around Firehouse 11 in Sulphur Springs, they keep tabs on 90 predators and offenders.

At DeSoto Elementary School, guidance counselor Janice LaTorre looks at the flier with Jones' picture and his charges -- four counts of lewd and lascivious acts on a child younger than 16. The office plans to send copies of the flier home with all students.

LaTorre said parents are accustomed to the occasional predator warning by now.

"I'm a parent, so I think everybody kind of freaks out a little bit when they see this," LaTorre said. "But it's something they need to do to keep parents informed, and they know that."

In the four years since the Florida Legislature passed laws that require notification wherever a sexual predator or offender moves into a neighborhood, the law has become so entrenched that not even the American Civil Liberties Union protests anymore. Law enforcement agencies, politicians and policymakers say the identification laws keep the state's residents safe from molesters and rapists.

Each new incarnation of the Public Safety Information Act, as it is officially known, from Web site access to community policing measures, creates new ripples of praise: This will keep our families safer.

But does it? For all the sound and fury, have these highly celebrated laws ensured anyone's safety?

Officer McCaughey thinks so and uses recidivism, the tendency for criminals to repeat crimes, as a bench mark. "The law's been around long enough for us to know that our recidivism rate has dropped," McCaughey said. "What makes these guys able to offend is secrecy. If they know that we know they're around, they can't stay secret."

Everyone from the 18-year-old who had sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend to the stepfather who raped his stepchildren is included under the label of sexual offenders and predators. Currently, 1,062 offenders and predators live and work in Hillsborough County. That number will grow as months go by because new offenders and predators are released from prison nearly every day.

Offenders are those who have been convicted of lesser sex crimes such as lewd and lascivious acts. Their names, addresses and pictures are listed on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Web site, but police aren't required to notify an entire neighborhood when an offender moves in. Some departments do so anyway.

Predators have been convicted of committing the most serious sex crimes, such as the rape of a child younger than 12. Repeat offenders of lesser crimes may also be labeled as predators by a judge. Sixty-six predators live in Hillsborough County.

Larry Spalding, the legislative attorney for the ACLU, says his group has accepted the law because it's not an invasion of privacy. The information it provides already is a matter of public record.

But that doesn't mean the ACLU likes it.

"The law is not unconstitutional, but it's a public policy question," Spalding said. "It's an easy thing for them to do to put all this stuff on the Internet, but whether or not it accomplishes anything is another question."

No study has been done to show that the recidivism rate has decreased. But Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, the law's sponsor, said he is convinced it has protected people, and could have protected more had it been in effect years ago.

"I don't know how many times it's saved a child. But the cops are using it, the public's using it and I think it's saving lives."

Al Danna, an FDLE agent who investigates crimes against children, agrees. "All I can really say about this, and I've been doing this stuff for 19 years, is that on the list of reasons why kids become victims, one that's high on the list is that child molesters look and act pretty much as anyone else does," Danna said.

If parents know that the regular guy down the street is actually a child molester, they are better equipped to protect their children, Danna said.

But the notification laws have other effects. Because of the FDLE's database, information that was once available only from a probation officer is now available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The information is especially helpful when police get a call at 3 a.m. that a child is missing.

"We can look up all the sex offenders in the area and go to them and ask them questions about where they've been and if they've seen the kid," Danna said. "We just go to the database and find them all in a matter of seconds. Before the law went into effect, if there was an abduction in, say, Carrollwood, we didn't have that ability."

Preventing sex offenders and predators from re-offending falls largely to the state Department of Corrections. The Tampa Bay area is Joseph Papy's responsibility.

Papy says sexual offenders and predators on probation are assigned to special probation officers known as sexual offender specialists. These officers counsel their offenders and get them in touch with treatment providers who offer group or individual counseling. They can administer polygraph tests to make sure the offender is getting help. "It's not just the law itself, standing alone," Papy said. "It's a whole new system the law set up. Now you have a team working together: the probation officer, local law enforcement's sex offender units, treatment providers and the public."

Dr. Nicholas Groth of Orlando, who dedicated his life to treating sexual offenders and retired four years ago, worries that the notification and registration laws place too much emphasis on legal requirements and not enough on treatment. "People tend to be skeptical of people who say they want to stop this behavior, stop these desires, and that's not fair," Groth said. "But will a law alone prevent people from behaving this way? That's not something we could count on."

Still, even offenders who get treatment re-offend. About 9 percent of the 780 people from Hillsborough County in prison for a sex crime have been imprisoned for similar offenses.

Groth said he counseled a group of child molesters in a Connecticut prison. Five years later, 30 percent of them had been arrested for molesting again. But he doesn't consider that a failure; 60 percent of the molesters who weren't treated also molested again.

Because of those statistics, Groth thinks that children could be imperiled by the sense of overconfidence the law may be generating among parents who depend on it. The best defense against a child molester is not a law, but sex education from an early age, Groth said.

"Most kids do not know how to protect themselves because they don't understand what's going on," he said. "Laws have their place, but if we could teach kids to swim rather than draining all the rivers, lakes and oceans, we're protecting them better."

Besides, as Spalding from the ACLU said, the law doesn't protect a child from his or her stepfather, uncle, or cousin. "Statistics show most child sex abuse comes from family members," he said. "Laws like this seldom stop that sort of thing."

The ACLU's primary concern about the law -- that it would lead to vigilantism and harassment -- hasn't become a reality. In Hillsborough, a man and a teen were charged in August with arson after a fire at the unoccupied Mango home of child molester Patrick Joseph Richards. But that incident was the exception.

Tampa police Officer Lisa Boeving, who runs SPIN, the Sexual Predator Identification and Notification program at the department, points to the Ybor Heights Civic Association as an example of what concerned neighbors do.

When residents learned about a halfway house for sexual offenders, they took their objections to the City Council, which asked the facility to move out of the neighborhood. It did.

Out in the field, officers such as McCaughey and Martinez check on registered sexual predators to make sure they're complying. If not, a call to the probation officer could send them to prison for several years.

"I have no patience with them," McCaughey said. The power to send offenders to prison before they re-offend means everything, McCaughey said. "We're out here every day," she said, "and we know it's working."

Source: St. Petersburg Times Online, Tampa Bay, by Angela Moore