Iowa lawmakers could change sex offender law

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

DES MOINES - As Iowa faces a deadline to update its sex offender law to match a stricter federal one, state lawmakers may use the opportunity to get rid of a controversial 2,000-foot rule restricting where offenders can live.

Under the federal law, sex offenders would have to stay on an online public registry at least five years longer, reveal more personal information about where they work and go to school, and face more supervision from law enforcement.

If Iowa doesn't comply with the federal provisions by the July deadline, the state could lose up to $450,000 for law enforcement activities.

For some Iowa lawmakers, the federal law is providing an opportunity to toss out the state's 2,000-foot state rule that bans sex offenders from living near child care centers and schools.

"Scrap what we have because it's not working," said Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, a former state trooper.

The proposed legislation would replace that residency restriction with "exclusion zones," which would limit where sex offenders may be present or loiter and require written permission to visit school grounds and child care centers.

Baudler and others say that while the federal law does not require Iowa to repeal its 2,000-foot rule, it would provide lawmakers some cover if they want to do so.

Ross Loder, who lobbies for the Iowa Department of Public Safety, said the department will finalize a draft bill early this week. The Legislature reconvenes in January.

Child abuse experts contend up to 90 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by a person known to the child's family, and it's a myth that children are most vulnerable to attacks by strangers who approach them at school or other public places.

Steve Scott, with Prevent Child Abuse Iowa, said he supports replacing the 2,000-foot rule with a plan to keep sex offenders off school and child care grounds without permission.

"It makes more sense than the existing law, but we don't have data to support the need for it," he said.

Some victim advocates and lawmakers are leery of the new federal law, called the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.

Sen. Keith Kreiman, D-Bloomfield, said the provisions would cost Iowa law enforcement more in time and money. He wants to be sure the law would actually make children safer from sexual violence before he votes for it.

"When you're adding additional burdens on state and local taxpayers, you'd better make darn sure what you're doing is going to result in better public safety," said Kreiman, who heads the judiciary committee in the Iowa Senate.

Ben Stone, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said the existing 2,000-foot rule is "extremely bad public policy." He urged lawmakers to be careful when applying the federal law.

"Several courts already have declared portions of the Walsh act unconstitutional, and state legislatures around the country are beginning to defy its mandates. Iowa's leaders should do the same," Stone said.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: