Treatment of sexual offenders debated

By Morning Sentinel staff, Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel, Augusta, Maine

WATERVILLE -- It didn't take long for residents of a South End neighborhood to learn they had a sex offender living among them.

Within days of being notified that a 37-year-old offender had moved to Waterville, police officers last month went door to door, armed with colorful leaflets describing crimes against the victim, a child under the age of 8.

Under Maine law, most sex offenders must tell police where they are living and when and where they move -- for the rest of their lives. They also are listed on the Maine Sex Offender Registry.

And police, in turn, must notify the community of the offender's presence.

But the law does not dictate how law enforcement gives that notice. They can post a flyer in the town office or at the general store or do as Waterville police did and pass out leaflets.

So, is it ethical to make a public display of a community's sex offenders?

Is doing so punishing someone twice?

Is it even a good idea?


Some professionals say the practice of publicly posting the names and pictures of sex offenders amounts to double punishment and unfairly -- even dangerously -- targets an offender who has served his prison sentence.

Others, especially law enforcement officers, say the community is alerted to a potential threat and is therefore a safer place to live.

Bob McArthur, a retired professor of philosophy at Colby College, said that while intentions usually are good, there is potential harm to the person on the registry who may be refused housing, denied employment and could become a target of vigilantes.

"It's clear that there's a potential harm and the question is, can you justify this because of some potential good," McArthur said. "It's trying to figure out what the good is of these additional notifications."

He said the sex offender notification process started with Megan's Law, enacted by Congress in 1996 after 7-year-old Megan Kanka of New Jersey was raped and killed by a neighbor who was a convicted sex offender.

McArthur said he does not believe public disclosures, including the registry, discourage repeat offenders.

"The usual claim in defense of a registry is, first of all, that the crimes are against children and we have a higher obligation to protect children than we do property or adults," he said.

"Secondly, that there is a greater likelihood of repeat offense from such individuals than other crimes -- that's the twin justification that is used in support of the sex registry idea."

At the China Village General Store, co-owner Belinda Winn said she posted a notice of a resident sex offender who had moved to town, but then took it down after people objected.

"We had it up for a couple of weeks," she said.

"Some people didn't like it. They didn't want to see their neighbor up there. We took it down after we felt all of our regular customers saw it."

Mike Spaulding, constable for the town of Benton, said he first began posting images of registered sex offenders last fall at the request of the Kennebec County Sheriff's Department.

At first, Spaulding said, it was the printed photograph and case details of just one Benton resident.

"Then, there were concerned citizens who told the selectmen that they wanted them all to be posted, regardless of the nature of the crime," Spaulding said.

He said the decision to post the names and pictures at the town office came after a selectmen's meeting in October.

There are now six posters of Benton's registered sex offenders.

"This is happening more and more," Spaulding said.

"I personally feel every case has to be taken on an individual basis."

Spaulding said the postings are not intended to be additional punishment, but the safety of the town's children has to be a top priority.

"Community protection comes first," he said.


Zachary Heiden, legal director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, disagrees.

Heiden said that if people cannot find meaningful work or a decent place to live because their picture is hanging in the local post office or general store, they are going to be forced to live outside of the community and perhaps on a path toward breaking the law.

"We all want our neighborhoods to be safe, but distributing photos of convicted individuals can actually make us less safe," Heiden said. "The goal of our criminal justice system should be to turn people who break the law into people who obey the law.

"Instead, it seems like these officers are trying to marginalize people who have been convicted and served their sentences, which would make it more likely that they will commit crimes again."

He questioned the fairness of singling out sex offenders from other criminals for greater punishment.

"We do not, for example, have a burglars' registry or a robbers' registry and those crimes are serious," he said.

Colby College philosophy professor Justin Steinberg took the idea a step further, saying that more harm than good can come from public postings of registered sex offenders.

He said privacy rights come into play early in the discussion.

"We, as a society, value autonomy and privacy and it would seem that in order to justifiably override these values, there must, minimally, be clear social benefits to doing so," Steinberg said.

"In this case, the consequences are not so clear."

Steinberg acknowledged that repeat offender rates can be high among certain kinds of sex offenders, but public postings might not do any good.

"My understanding is that there is not much evidence to suggest that these warning systems do much to protect individuals," he said. "While such efforts might encourage vigilance and safety, I suspect that they generally do little more than inspire unnecessary fear in a community and a more acute sense of ostracism on the part of the offender.

"In short, my guess is that more harm than good comes from publicizing this information."

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said individual towns decide whether to post sex offenders' information.

"I believe that it's important to inform neighborhoods of sex offenders because the potential victims are often defenseless," Liberty said.

"The parents need to be informed of the surrounding potential threats. Although offenders have served their time, they most often struggle not to reoffend."

When a registered sex offender has been convicted and subsequently released from custody, county detectives do a background investigation.

"They make a recommendation to the sheriff as to the threat level to the community," Liberty said.

"If based upon the facts of the case, I believe that the offender is a potential threat, I direct my deputies to notify the neighbors. The postings include the town offices."


Ronald Raymond, a retired chief deputy for the Kennebec County Sheriff's Department and now a volunteer sex offender resource officer for the county, said a town office, the school system or the local post office are the best places to begin with the notification process.

Again, whether to display or distribute the flyers is up to the store owner or town official and it is not required by law.

It is then up to each of those entities to determine how they want to handle that information. Some slip the paperwork into a file; others post them on the wall, he said.

In Somerset County, Sheriff Barry DeLong said his office will notify residents if the sex offender is being released from the Somerset County jail.

But generally, he said, he and his staff rely on the Maine Sex Offender Registry to spread the word in Maine's third-largest county.

The list is effective, police say, because parents, school officials and daycare providers know who is living in their town.

Raymond took over last summer and had 87 registered sex offenders in the city of Waterville alone, he said.

"When we were able to maintain and accurately keep up with the list because of the manpower, the list rapidly went down to 56 or 57 -- that's because of constant critiquing -- you're on them all the time, you go out and check on them."

Some leave town, some are arrested and the list dwindles, he said. Because they are under a microscope, there are fewer who stick around.

"The program that the sheriff and the Waterville police chief came up with proved to be very valuable in terms of maintaining the list and that's the key to the whole sex offender registry -- maintaining the list accurately," Raymond said.

"As a parent and a citizen we feel much more comfortable knowing who our neighbors are and what their background is so that allows us to participate in keeping our kids safe."

Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey, who is a selectman in neighboring Clinton, said both communities print out flyers on registered sex offenders and distribute them in neighborhoods where a sex offender has moved.

"Whenever we get someone who is required to register or let us know of an address change, we have a detective who takes that case, researches it, researches the original offense, where it was, what the crime was, was there violence involved, how young the children were and take a look at where they are going to be living," Massey said.

He said the notification area may be expanded if the offender's crime was particularly serious or if he or she lives in a neighborhood with a heavy concentration of children.

"I think it's important that you know if there's a sex offender living beside you," Massey said.

Doug Harlow -- 861-9244

No comments: