Proposed law would bar high-risk sex offenders from voting places

By John P. Kelly, GateHouse News Service

Their photographs hang in police stations and on Internet sites. Towns restrict where they live. Soon, the state’s most dangerous sex offenders might find rejection elsewhere — at the polls on election day.

A proposed law that would block high-risk sex offenders from voting at polling sites in schools and libraries overcame its first hurdle on Wednesday with an endorsement from lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Election Laws.

But objections are already being raised over the constitutionality of the measure, which would force many of the most dangerous sex offenders to vote by absentee ballot or not at all. The American Civil Liberties Union, the only group to speak out against the bill, argued that it is at odds with the state constitution, which reserves absentee ballots for the physically disabled or out-of-town voters.

The proposal was not prompted by any instance where a sex offender attacked a child at a polling place. But it has taken on new urgency since the alleged rape of a 6-year-old boy in New Bedford’s public library on Jan. 30 by Level 3 sex offender Corey Saunders.

Rep. Demetrius J. Atsalis, a Barnstable Democrat who sponsored the bill, said he was trying to be “proactive instead of reactive.”

He said his goal is to protect against a rapist wandering undetected down a school hallway or into a library bathroom.

Atsalis, the father of three children, pointed out sex offenders are routinely barred from school zones, “yet on election day we allow this.”

“We all know it takes only a matter of seconds for something to happen,” said Atsalis, who sits on the election law committee.

The Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board, which classifies and tracks sex offenders, considers the bill a “reasonable restriction” given its aim of improving public safety, spokesman Charles McDonald said.

If passed by the Legislature and signed into law, it would affect only Level 3 sex offenders, the most dangerous classification, reserved for those considered likely to reoffend.

There are 1,544 in the state, but it is unclear how many are registered voters whose precincts are at schools or libraries.

In the region, the number of Level 3 sex offenders varies widely from community to community — from 21 in Quincy and 12 in Randolph to none in Scituate and Hingham.

Atsalis’ proposal initially included Level 2 sex offenders. But constitutional privacy concerns led him to confine it only to the most dangerous offenders, who are subject to stricter reporting rules.

The ACLU claims the bill still violates the state constitution.

Gavi Wolfe, a legislative specialist for the group, testified at Wednesday’s hearing that lawmakers would be overstepping their authority by forcing sex offenders to vote absentee. The Massachusetts constitution specifies only three cases where someone may vote absentee: disabled voters; people who are out of town on Election Day; and voters whose religious belief keep them from the polls.

“We’re talking about the right to vote, which is the most sacred act of our democratic process,” Wolfe said. “We should not be in the business of carving that up.”

Illinois enacted a similar restriction last year, though it was targeted only at people convicted of sex crimes against a child. The law, which addressed only polling places at schools, requires cities and towns to establish early voting locations for sex offenders who prefer not to vote absentee. Opponents there questioned why paroled murderers and other violent criminals were not being targeted, if the purpose was heightened public safety.

Avi Green, executive director of the voting rights organization MassVote, gave lukewarm support to Atsalis’ proposal, calling it a “laudable concept.” He pointed out other states have outright voting bans on felons.

“But you could also argue, maybe we should bar them from shopping centers, parks, concerts,” Green said.

Scituate residents vote later this month on a town bylaw that would set up 2,000-foot buffers around schools, day care centers, parks, elderly housing and places of worship. Sex offenders who live within the zones would be given 30 days to move. A similar plan is under consideration in Weymouth.
[Ed: Is it possible that sex offender-voters have now grown so numerous as to pose a challenge to the reelection of those who have persecuted them? Perhaps not quite yet, but barring them from voting booths and thus depriving them of their most basic rights as citizens shows a clear contempt
not just for sex offenders but for participatory democracy.]

Montgomery Co. inmate strangled at prison

CARLISLE, Ind. — A man convicted of sexual misconduct with a minor died after being attacked in his cell at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility.

Robert Crane, 27, who appeared to have been strangled, died while being treated at a hospital about 1:30 p.m. today, two hours after the attack, prison spokesman Rich Larsen said.

Indiana State Police and prison investigators named Crane’s cellmate, Michael Gibson, 33, as a suspect in the attack, Larsen said.

Gibson is serving a 119-year sentence for two attempted murders, battery, burglary and possessing a weapon, with an earliest possible release date of 2063, Larsen said. His crimes occurred in Morgan and Madison Counties.

The two prisoners were being held in protective custody, Larsen said.

After the attack, guards immediately tried to resuscitate Crane, Larsen said. He was rushed to Sullivan County Community Hospital.

Crane, who also had been convicted of attempted escape, was serving a 14-year term.

The Wabash Valley Correctional Facility houses more than 2,100 prisons in maximum and minimum security. It’s about 35 miles south of Terre Haute.

[Ed: The common wisdom regarding sex offenders killed or tortured by other prisoners goes something like this: "Even criminals have nothing but contempt for sex offenders, having been, in all likelihood, the victims of childhood sexual abuse themselves. It is understandable then that they should vent their rage, born of a childhood full of sexual abuse, upon those molesters close at hand within jail or prison". This argument suffers from several dubious claims, the first of which is that sexual contact in childhood with an adult is a leading cause of later criminality. There is little factual basis for this assertion and, to the extent that it exists, is vastly overstated in the facile pop psychology that has become the received wisdom of our times, stated endlessly as gospel on Oprah and infiltrating our very public policy.

The other assumption is that, despite being criminals themselves, there dwells in these jail house enforcers of
morality an essential thread of decency that demands they act in the name of justice to murder molesters in a way in which no one else can, securing for themselves a measure of redemption that will allow them to climb several rungs up the ladder of social respectability. How unfortunate it is that the public is more than willing to accord them this redemptive respect, without questioning the dark and disturbing motivations which truly drive their vicious acts. It seems to occur to few that, by murdering someone lower on the social totem pole than themselves, these criminals are able to give full expression to their sadism and depravity while gaining both self-respect and the tacit approval of society. History provides countless examples of acts of cruelty disguised as acts of righteousness. By ignoring these lessons we become, ourselves, cruel.

Sex Offenders Collect Financial Aid

[Ed: Guess what? You can't have it both ways! You cannot say that, on one hand, sex offenders are being held past their prison release dates for non-punitive purposes and, on the other, that they are not entitled to the rights and privileges of any other U.S. citizen such as financial aid for college. That the Congressman is appalled by U.S. citizens receiving Pell grants says much about the legal fiction by which Civil Detainees are incarcerated. Everyone knows, as does the Congressman, that these men ARE being punished regardless of any legislative or judicial conceits to the contrary. So I say, go ahead; take away their Pell grants! That will be one more bit of damning evidence which can be employed to challenge civil confinement laws in future court battles.]

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — James Sturtz is not your ordinary college student struggling to pay tuition.
The 48-year-old rapist is one of Iowa's most dangerous sex offenders, locked up in a state-run treatment center for fear he will attack again if released. Yet he has received thousands of dollars in federal aid to take college courses through the mail.
Across the nation, dozens of sexual predators have been taking higher education classes at taxpayer expense while confined by the courts to treatment centers. Critics say they are exploiting a loophole to receive Pell Grants, the nation's premier financial aid program for low-income students.
Prison inmates are ineligible for Pell Grants under a 1994 law. Students convicted of certain drug offenses are also ineligible. But sexual predators qualify once they are transferred from prison to treatment centers.
"This is the most insane waste of taxpayer money that I have seen in my eight years in Congress," said Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., who is pushing to stop the practice. "It is a national embarrassment that we are wasting taxpayer dollars for pedophiles and rapists to take college courses while hardworking young people from lower-class families are flipping hamburgers to pay for college."
Moreover, some institutions report that sex offenders are putting the financial aid to questionable uses by buying such things as clothes, a DVD player and music CDs — sometimes, after they have dropped out of school. Pell Grants can legally be put toward expenses that are education-related. But the unused portion of a grant is supposed to be repaid when someone withdraws from school.
Keller's plan would affect 20 states that allow authorities to hold violent sex offenders indefinitely after they have served their prison sentences. He predicted the measure would save taxpayers millions.
Some say taking away the financial aid for correpondence courses would be a mistake. They say education could help sex offenders build stable lives and reduce their chances of committing another crime if they are ever released.
The U.S. Education Department does not track how many sexual predators confined to treatment centers have received aid, in part because the offenders do not have to disclose their living arrangements on the application forms. But within the past five years, at least several dozen have received Pell Grants. And the department is only following the law.
"They are eligible," Education Department spokeswoman Stephanie Babyak said. She said the department generally does not track how recipients pay their expenses, "but if there is an issue with people getting overawards, we would look into that. We'll be happy to check it out."
The institutions and the government do not keep count of how much money sexual predators receive. The maximum Pell Grant is $4,310 per year. The government generally sends payments to colleges for tuition, and any leftover is sent to the student to cover expenses.
At the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Mauston, Wis., six patients are getting Pell Grants, and others did so in the past. Some patients used their grants for living expenses that were already being covered by the state's taxpayers, according to administrators.
"I think that the current practice — which results in large checks being sent to the patients for living expenses — is pretty much indefensible," director Steve Watters wrote in an e-mail to an aide last year.
In Iowa, 14 offenders in the Cherokee Mental Health Institute have received Pell Grants in recent years, said administrator Jason Smith. He said nine of them dropped courses after receiving money.
Some patients used their money to buy a DVD player, a television, a radio, music CDs and movies, Smith said. Because of vague guidelines, staff members could not determine whether those were inappropriate expenditures, he said.
In California, a number of predators living at the Coalinga State Hospital receive Pell Grants, said Department of Mental Health spokeswoman Nancy Kincaid. But she said the hospital has no way of tracking who gets them or how much money they receive.
Representatives of other states, including Kansas and Minnesota, said they could not recall sex offenders signing up for Pell Grants. Other states said they had no idea whether that was the case.
"They don't really tell us what they are doing. They have a lot of liberties they want to exercise without our oversight," said Dr. Henry Richards, superintendent of the Special Commitment Center in Washington state, where some patients take correspondence courses.
Keller introduced his bill to ban the practice after a newspaper reported in 2003 that 54 offenders at one Florida center got $200,000 in Pell Grants in one year.
Some Democratic members of Congress and others say it would be counterproductive to put up a barrier to education for sex offenders who are trying to rehabilitate themselves.
"These are people who we want to prepare to go into the communities. They need to have access to educational programs," Richards said. "I think the numbers of committed persons aren't so large they would significantly preclude other citizens from taking advantage of educational support. To preclude them seems mean-spirited to me."
Sturtz illustrates both sides.
The Iowa man was convicted in 1980 of sexually assaulting a 4-year-old girl. He earned his high school equivalency diploma behind bars and trained to be a janitor. He was convicted again in 1989 of attempted rape after pulling a knife on a woman.
After another stint behind bars, he struck again in 1994. This time, he met a Coe College student waiting for a bus, persuaded her to get in his car and raped her at knifepoint. He was sent back to prison and then ordered to Cherokee after his sentence ended in 2006.
Sturtz said he signed up to take business courses through Kirkwood Community College and received B's in business communication courses. But he has put his schooling on hold.
He said he dropped algebra and two other courses that were too hard. And he said he was unable to complete one class because he was not able to watch the required movies. Like other sexual predators, he is not allowed access to the Internet, and that has complicated his schooling.
He said he used his $100 in leftover grant money to buy jeans and underwear and saved the rest in case he tries to take more courses.
So far, none of the 72 predators in the Iowa center has been released since it opened in 1999. Sturtz admitted he is not ready for freedom anytime soon.
"It wasn't about the money for me, man. It was about the education," he said. "God knows I'm going to need all the help to get a job."