With the gut-wrenching details of heinous sex crimes making national headlines in the past few years, it's easy to see why cities and states would rush to get tougher on offenders even after they get out of prison. The rape and murder of Jessica Lunsford, 9, in March caused Florida to pass a law in May that mandates lifetime monitoring with ankle bracelets for anyone convicted of a sex crime against a minor. The 2003 abduction of North Dakota college student Dru Sjodin helped spur the creation of a national online registry of sex offenders that began rolling out in July.
Now cities from Miami Beach to Hamilton Township, N.J., have begun imposing restrictions that barely leave sex offenders any place to live. On Sept. 1 Iowa is enforcing one of the toughest statewide bans in the country by barring anyone convicted of a sexual crime against a minor from living within 2,000 ft. of a school or day-care center. That comes just two months after another Iowa bill, which requires DNA samples from all sex offenders and mandates life in prison for anyone convicted of a second sexual offense against a minor. "The public wants this," says Iowa attorney general Tom Miller. "Iowans feel strongly about stopping sexual abuse."
Sympathy for pedophiles and rapists is, understandably, in short supply ("If I could find a cage and put them all in, that would be fine," says Sjodin's mother Linda Walker), but the growing movement to limit where past offenders can live, work or even set foot has begun to draw increasing criticism from civil-liberties groups, sex-abuse experts and even some child advocates. Reports of rape and attempted rape have plummeted some 70% since the early 1990s, and reconviction rates of child molesters are estimated at 13%, compared with 47% for all non-sex criminals. Some critics question whether tougher laws are needed--and whether they really work. "By socially ostracizing these people and making it next to impossible for them to find a job or have educational opportunities or otherwise forge necessary social ties, what do we expect is going to happen with them?" asks Bruce Winick, a University of Miami law and psychiatry professor. "If we banish the sexual offender to a subterranean existence, pretty soon he starts getting back that criminal urge."
Others argue that the new laws are inefficient because they focus on monitoring anyone who has committed a sex crime rather than those who are most likely to strike again. Those critics say that therapy to break the cycle of behavior, supervision by a parole officer and even polygraph tests to assess whether an offender is lying about his or her activities and urges would be a more effective way to control them. A 2002 survey of nearly 9,500 sex offenders found that those who underwent therapy were 40% less likely to reoffend than those who did not. But few of the new laws have provisions for treatment.