Thursday, November 30, 2006

Who Feels Good About Feel-Good Laws?

COLUMN NOTES: This is the first column I wrote about the Jeffersonville Sex Offender Issue which I refer to in this post.

(I Don't Know What Title The Newspaper Gave to This Column)

The Jeffersonville City Council believes passing an ordinance prohibiting registered sex offenders from using city parks will make residents safer. I’m sure this ordinance will accomplish a few things, such as making council members feel good and provide work for local attorneys. But will it really make your family safer? Not likely.

There are a lot of myths about sexual crimes and this law only perpetuates the misconceptions. If council members bothered to educate themselves on this topic, they would know that 90% of sexual offenses against children, and 80% of offenses against those over 12, are committed by someone the victim knows. Not by strangers in the park.

Education and vigilance are the best protection from sexual offenders. Our children are more likely to run into a sex offender in our homes and churches than in a park because these criminals set up relationships and create trust through deception. If we want our families to be safe, we must learn the facts and watch over our kids. Laws prohibiting convicted offenders from using a government park do not help us do that.

This is the type of law that makes citizens wonder about enforcement and the best use of limited resources. I’m certain most people would rather see the police working on real crime instead of kicking someone off a swing set. We are also told that there is an appeals process written in the law for those unintentionally affected. But doesn’t a city judge have more important things to do? The lawyer writing the bill admits there may be lawsuits but he thinks the city would win. But would the lawyers involved work on a pro bono basis? Does this ordinance really sound like the best use of the police and court system?

If the city council truly wants to make their citizens safer, and I think they do, then each of them might want to consider whether their time could better be spent on educating themselves and others on how to really protect their children. Of course they don’t have to be council persons to take this sort of action.

The sex offender registry was not set up so that city councils could create unenforceable, nearly meaningless laws. The registry’s intent, as stated on the website ( is “to inform the general public about the identity, location, and appearance of sex and violent offenders who live, work, or study in Indiana.” But I suppose it was only a matter of time before the government started using the data in the registry in additional ways other than what was intended.

For those who feel the registry is useful, it’s there to use. Personally I found it oddly voyeuristic and not at all helpful to be able to look at pictures and addresses of offenders who have done their time. Especially when I learned that the recidivism rates for sex offenders is lower than other criminals. This could be due to low reporting rates, but of course that only points out that we are in greater danger of the offenders who haven’t been caught. Another reason this ordinance is not helpful.

Why do government officials often move towards creating more laws when statistics show that the best way to lead a safer life and help protect our children is through education?

We all want our families to be safe. Ironically this desire sometimes causes us to do dangerous things, such as relying too much on government officials to write the perfect law, rather than simply educating ourselves so we can take control over our own lives.

Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson maintains a registry of feel-good, unenforceable, useless laws. Updating the registry is very time consuming so if you want to help, write her.