No legislating the live-in nightmare

Monday, May 16, 2005

In the wake of the abduction, rape and murder of Jetseta Gate, a young girl from Cedar Rapids, state and national politicians are piling the soapboxes high to call for stiffer sentences for sex offenders. Charles Grassley even calls his version of such a bill, "The Jetseta Gage Prevention and Detterence of Crimes Against Children Act."

This is all well and good, if you assume that the prison and parole systems work to begin with.

According to state officials, the man who killed Jetseta Gage WAS sentenced to a considerable stretch. He was turned loose after just half of it was served, despite the fact that he refused treatment or mental evaluations, and slipped through the cracks of the system that is supposed to track offenders.

If the system had worked, he would not have been there to commit the crime.

A good start would be to simply make sure that sex offenders serve the sentences they are given. When did the standard seemingly become serving half of a criminal sentence, even for violent, abusive acts? What happened to the supposed truth in sentencing efforts?

The federal bill seems to focus on longer sentences, but if we read Senator Grassley's intentions correctly, the mandatory sentences would actually be as little as two years in cases of sexual abuse that do not involve murder, kidnap, weapons or a child under 12. That's before the system turns them loose early.

Rehabilitation? Forget about it. A Justice Department study shows that over one in every 20 sex offenders dealt with by the courts will commit another sex crime. And there are 26 in BV County right now. The convicted sex offender has quadruple the likelihood to commit a sex crime than other criminals who have done time in the state prison. In many cases, there just is no reforming them.

The state proposals have been a more shotgun approach - looking at everything from a death penalty to mandatory evaluations to tracking bracelets to a DNA database.

There are several ideas with merit in there, including simply a notification of schools when a convicted offender moves in to their areas.

This is important, since the weak-kneed courts have failed to back up Iowa policy barring offenders from living next to a school. A pack of offenders and their lawyers got together and whined that such a policy isn't fair for them.

How about the rights of children to be safe from abuse? It only makes sense to avoid such temptation, and if it is inconvenient to the housing market for the convicted criminal, well, isn't that a shame.

The proposed Iowa bill has offered mandatory life sentences without parole for those committing a second sexual abuse offense, which may be the only way to stop foolish early releases. Those who refuse treatment would no longer be eligible for early release, which also makes common sense.

A mandatory evaluation, however, is a must. Without it, there will be no way to determine whether an inmate is rehabilitated, or what the risk of re-offense may be. If we truly intend to follow-up and better supervise these people, we need to know what those risks are. We notice that the state registry no longer even lists whether a convicted sex offender is considered a high risk to re-offend. Was that violating their rights too, we wonder?

All of these state and federal proposals, of course, only seek to define what we will do to punish someone once they have sexually abused a child, and can do nothing at all to prevent that first sexual assault from happening.

It is too bad we cannot legislate relationship choices.

How many times have we seen it in these horrible child abuse cases or trials, from Shelby Duis to Jetseta Gage, and in many of the cases of those cut-out kids on the lawn of the courthouse for a candlelight vigil each spring?

The mother takes a live-in, or a boyfriend, or an on-site drug pusher with a violent streak or abusive contacts. The child pays the price. Over and over and over again.

It is frustrating to realize that we can pass all the laws we want, lengthen sentences, apply all the criminology technology we want, and it won't begin to fix that.

Until society comes to recognize the abusers and they are kept out of the homes with children, there will be more battered, kidnapped and missing kids.

We should legislate what we can, but we can't legislate those relationship choices, only educate women to know they and their children deserve better even if they are troubled or lonely or broke, and do a better job of identifying the abusers in our midst who present a risk to do it again.