Cutting sex offenders off at the pass

In the face of a seemingly endless tide of horror stories about child molesters moving into suburban neighborhoods, their sick impulses incurable and unpredictable, the nationís lawmakers decided to strike back. From California to New Hampshire, laws were passed in the past year that called for everything from chemical castration to mandatory sex-offender registration.

Of an estimated 61,000 offenders serving time for violent crimes against victims under 18, nearly 10 percent had been convicted of the murder or manslaughter of a child, according to an extensive study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Fifteen-percent had been convicted of forcible rape, and 57 percent had been found guilty of other types of sexual assault, including sodomy and statutory rape.

In 88 percent of the cases, BJS found, victims had a prior relationship with their attackers  only one in seven were attacked by a stranger.

This frightening fact, along with the contention that many, if not most, child molesters are untreatable, underpins many of the nationís sexual predator laws that have made their tortuous way through the system, encountering procedural problems and resistance from civil libertarians along the way.

One of the issues still being hotly contested in 1996 was the creation a year earlier of Californiaís sex-offender hot lines. The hot lines allow callers to dial a 900 number and, for a cost of $10, find out instantly whether a neighbor or new teacher has a past conviction for child sexual abuse.

Supporters of the system claim the hot line only gives callers the same information they could find for themselves by going through court records. Critics contend that an erroneous entry could destroy a personís career or make him the object of a vigilante backlash.

Since its inception, the hot-line has received some 5,800 calls, resulting in nearly 500 ďhitsĒ or positive identifications of a subject as a child molester. In one case, a woman with two small children discovered that her new husband had been convicted in 1979 of sex crimes against children.

In New York, a hot line was created in response to a new sex-offender notification law that calls for all convicted sex offenders to register with the state upon release or parole. Some 5,000 names were entered this year.

Meanwhile, the widely replicated Meganís Law, of which a Federal version was signed in May by President Clinton, continued to generate headlines in New Jersey last year. In the most recent wrinkle to the politically popular but legally controversial law, a District Court judge temporarily barred the Bergen County Prosecutorís Office from notifying schools and other institutions that an Englewood man convicted 20 years ago of murdering two boys had returned to the neighborhood.

Perhaps the most punitive step taken toward repeat child sex abusers came with a stroke of the pen when California Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation that calls for the chemical castration of twice-convicted molesters of children under 13. The law requires that they be given weekly injections of Depo-Provera, a drug aimed at countering their sexual compulsions. The offender can also choose to be surgically castrated. A judge may also order a first offender to undergo chemical castration if the offense is sufficiently egregious.

Civil libertarians weighed in with a warning that castration could violate fundamental constitutional rights, including the right to privacy, the right to procreate, and the right to exercise control over oneís body. Those in the therapeutic community caution that castration may not control all sex offenders, especially without additional legislation requiring therapy or counseling. Child molesters are motivated less by sex and more by the need for power over their victims, some experts say, and it is questionable whether chemical castration is going to change that.

As if the publicís sense of personal safety were not already eroded enough, the year also brought a steady diet of reports of another group of offenders for whom power and sex seemed to intermingle: police officers charged with rape, child molestation and other sex offenses. A sampling of such reports describes the tawdry landscape:

New York City Police Officer Joseph Schubert was charged on July 1 with raping a 19-year-old woman at her New Jersey beach house. Schubert had already been stripped of his gun and badge in an unrelated incident.

A Minneapolis woman was awarded $200,000 in a settlement after being forced to have sex with police officer Michael Parent in exchange for his not charging her with drunken driving. Parent is serving four years in prison for kidnapping and rape  the first Minneapolis officer in more than 20 years to serve time in prison.

Another New York City police officer, George Alvarado, 29, was suspended without pay after being charged in March with twice raping his 9-year-old daughter. The childís mother found out about the attacks when the girl wrote an account of them to her teacher.

Bobby Joe Spicer, a San Antonio police officer convicted in September of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old transvestite prostitute, was spared a 20-year prison sentence based on a juryís recommendation. Spicer was sentenced to 10 years probation and fined $10,000. He will also undergo counseling and register as a sex offender.

A seventh-grade girl was the victim of suspended Fort Worth, Tex., police officer Brian Franklin, who is now serving life in prison for aggravated sexual assault on the girl.

Patrick J. Donovan, 32, a Washington, D.C., police officer, was arrested May 3 and charged with exposing himself to a group of children in a Fairfax County playground in April. Police searched Donovanís home after he matched the description of a man walking a dog who had struck up a conversation with the children, ages 5 to 9. Donovan was also investigated in a similar incident the following day at the same playground.

Prompted by the filing of rape charges in September against a rookie police officer, the Fulton County, Ga., Police Department began looking for ways to screen potential sex offenders from its ranks. The officer, 24-year-old Karl Craig, was the second rookie to be charged with a sex crime in less than a year.


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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]