ABDUL-HAKIM SHABAZZ Commentary: Sex-offender laws often miss the mark

July 3, 2006

Although I consider myself a reasonably intelligent individual, there are some things I don't understand, like why there's Braille at drive-through ATMs, why some bookmarks cost $1 (it would be easier to use the dollar), and why we have most sex-offender laws.

There are numerous sex-offender laws going into effect July 1 in Indiana. Some make sense, like lifetime probation for sexually violent persons that can be revoked should an offender commit another offense. There are some, like Marion County's ordinance, that make about as much sense as letting your kid sleep over at Michael Jackson's place.

The Marion County ordinance will fine sex offenders for coming near parks and playgrounds. They will owe $600 for the first offense and up to $2,500 for subsequent offenses. This would be a nice ordinance if it weren't for the small fact that there are more than 2,200 sex offenders living within 20 miles of the county's nearly 200 parks and playgrounds and only 27 park rangers who are working two to three per shift to cover the area.

The park rangers did manage to catch a sex offender in June. Granted, he was reportedly driving drunk though Garfield Park and otherwise would have probably gotten away because he was unregistered.

The inherent problem with most of these laws is that they are promoted as a way to protect children from sex offenders. If you want to protect your son or daughter from sex offenders, don't look on the state sex-offender registry. Look in your family photo album.

It is a myth that strangers commit most sexual assaults, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The department found that nearly 60 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls who are sexually victimized are hurt by someone known to the child or the child's family. So, if your child is going to come into contact with a sex offender, it will probably be a relative, family friend, baby sitter or someone else in a position of authority over the child. Forget the stranger with candy and a raincoat.

Here are some other fun little facts: Most sex offenders are not caught, convicted and in prison. Only a fraction of those who commit sexual assault are caught and convicted. In addition, up to half of all cases of child molestation are committed by other adolescents between the ages of 13 to 17.

The only way to protect children from sex offenders is to make sure they don't come into contact with them in the first place. Part of the formula is tough prosecution and incarceration. In fact, my home state of Illinois took the step years ago of civilly confining sex offenders after they have completed their sentences if they are perceived to still be a danger even though they've served their sentences.

The other half of the formula is talking to your children so that, if someone touches them in an inappropriate manner, they will come back and tell you. Take any such reports seriously and take appropriate action.

I could tell you horror stories of children who were sexually abused by friends or family members and no one would believe them. By the time the offender was caught, too much damage had been done. So if you want to protect children from sex offenders, start by doing a check of the people around you. Like the data says, it's probably not the guy down the street who's likely to molest your child, but the one you've already allowed into your home.

Shabazz is the morning show host on WXNT-AM 1430 and of counsel at the law firm of Lewis & Wilkins. His column appears monthly. He can be reached by e-mail at ashabazz@ibj.com.
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