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A better approach to sex offender policy

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Parents of murdered children
Left to right: Linda Walker, John Walsh of America's Most Wanted and Mark Lunsford visit during a rally in support of the Children's Safety Act in 2005. Sections of the bill were named after Walker's daughter, Dru Sjodin, and Lunsford's daughter, Jessica, both of whom were kidnapped and killed by registered sex offenders.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

North Dakota State Sen. Tim Mathern says it all started with calls from angry mothers. 

They'd discovered a sex offender lived near their neighborhood elementary school.  So Mathern began working on legislation to ban sex offenders from living near schools.

But along the way he had an epiphany. 

"The simplest solution would be, let's pass a bill, 2,000 feet [restriction] around every school. Get it passed and be done with it," says Mathern. "But no children would benefit. No families would have a safer community. No schools would be safer."

That's because research and experience shows banning sex offenders from anyplace kids might be forces many sex offenders to go underground. Then no one, including police, knows where they live. 

It's also a fact that children are most often abused by a family member or friend. 

"DON'T CONFUSE ME WITH THE FACTS"

That information helped Sen. Mathern change his approach to the legislation. He decided banning sex offenders from school property made more sense than trying to restrict where they could live. 

Sen. Tim Mathern
North Dakota Sen. Tim Mathern changed his sex offender residency restriction bill after researching the issue.
Photo courtesy of Sen. Mathern

Mathern says some of his legislative colleagues continued to favor a tougher, broader ban. 

"Sometimes what happens is lawmakers don't want to know the facts, or the facts don't make any difference," says Mathern. "There really are two things that affect public policy. One is the facts. The other is the feelings and political pressure. There are legislators who will say, 'Don't confuse me with the facts. I've made up my mind.'" 

Mathern says he knows some voters might criticize him for narrowing the focus of his sex offender legislation, but he says he's found most of his constituents agree when he explains the facts. 

"I have not gone soft on sex offenders. In fact, I'm getting tougher. But I'm using facts, I'm using reason. I actually want children to be safer. I want this neighborhood to be safer," says Mathern. "For that to happen we can't just do knee-jerk reactions when there's a crime."

But often that's exactly what happens.  Significant sex offender legislation is passed in response to a heinous crime that grabs headlines. 

GRIEVING PARENTS HELP PASS BAD LAWS

Patty Wetterling has seen it happen many times.  Her son Jacob was kidnapped 18 years ago. He's never been found. Wettering says grieving parents often help to pass bad legislation.

Wetterling says parents across the country are joining forces to focus attention on the need for effective sex offender laws. 

"After you have a child kidnapped and or murdered, somebody will come to you and say, 'Do this; this will make it all better and your child will not have died in vain,'" Wetterling says. "You are very desperate and vulnerable, so part of me wants to protect other parents from falling into that. Let's not make bad laws. All the parents agree, their number one goal is no more victims." 

"We have to make sure we aren't shooting ourselves in the foot by being righteous, but making things worse."

Wetterling says getting to that goal will take a combination of punishment, treatment and prevention. 

She says many parents whose children were victims of sexual predators are angry and frustrated with lawmakers. 

Wetterling says too often when laws are passed,  they're not adequately funded. She says the Adam Walsh Act recently passed by Congress requires states to put programs in place, but doesn't provide funding. 

"Don't pass laws in our kids' names and then not put any money into it. That's such an insult," says Wetterling. "All that is is a photo op so you can look good. Everybody pats each other on the back and there are no dollars there. It's infuriating."

Wetterling says the majority of funding for sex offender programs is spent on about 3 percent of offenders. Those are the violent high-profile abductions and murders. 

Wetterling says she hopes to convince lawmakers to pass effective sex offender laws, and spend more money on programs to protect kids who are abused and might grow up to be violent sex offenders.  

Wetterling goes to speak with lawmakers armed with pages of statistics and research.  Surprisingly, that information is sometimes missing from the debate over sex offender laws.

LAWMAKERS' MAIN SOURCE OF INFO IS THE MEDIA

Lisa Sample, a criminology professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha, says misinformation and a lack of information often shapes sex offender policy.

She's examined where lawmakers get their information about sex offenders. Most of the legislators in her study said their primary source of information was the news media.  Sample says in many cases, lawmakers did not read studies or reports relevant to legislation they supported. 

She says it's clear most sex offender legislation follows the abduction and murder of a child, and the resulting public outrage. 

Lisa Sample
Professor Lisa Sample found lawmakers most often get their facts about sex offenders from the media.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Sample

"What we don't do, however, is to put those events in a larger context," says Sample.  "The fact is child homicides are so rare, and sexually related child homicides are even rarer, and I'm not sure it's misinformation we give the public as a lack of information. We just don't give them enough information to understand risk appropriately." 

Relatively few people are aware a child is at greater risk of sexual abuse from a family member or friend than from a stranger, according to Sample. 

If people understood that simple fact, Sample says she believes they would support more programs to prevent sexual abuse. 

A FOCUS ON PREVENTION

Research shows violent offenders were often abused as children.  Many of the experts interviewed for this story pointed to prevention as a key area that gets little attention. 

There is some evidence to support the call for more prevention. Ramsey County identifies children who get in trouble and are at risk of becoming violent offenders, and targets those children for intensive intervention.  Those children are significantly less likely to go on to a life of crime. 

Nancy Sabin, head of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, says she believes prevention is the most neglected solution to sexual violence. She says it's easy to focus on stranger danger. It's harder to address family issues closer to home. 

Taylors Falls map
A map of Taylors Falls, Minnesota, showing areas where sex offenders may not stay, even overnight. The restictions cover most of the town, and many of the areas where offenders could stay don't have any housing.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Sabin says, however, that lawmakers don't deserve all the blame. 

"The question I'd like to ask the public is,  where do we think these guys are coming from?  They're coming from our homes," says Sabin. "We've got to get over some of the fear,  and find the right words to have really important conversations so none of us are raising sex offenders in our homes. because that's where they're coming from. If we can't help fix this problem, who can?"

Starting that public discussion may not be easy. Talking about sex raises issues of morality and religion. But North Dakota State Sen. Tim Mathern says he's convinced successful solutions to sexual violence won't happen until the public is engaged in a meaningful debate. 

"These public policies have to be discussed. And the citizens have to start influencing their legislators to use facts, to use research, to use an approach that actually works, not an approach that just gets more votes," says Mathern. "We have to make sure we aren't shooting ourselves in the foot by being righteous, but making things worse."

In Minnesota, a panel of experts recently completed a comprehensive report to serve as a guide for sex offender policy in the state. One of the report's authors says the biggest challenge is just getting lawmakers to read it.