Information good; vigilantism bad

About 700 people showed up for a meeting in St. Paul this week to get information about two sex offenders who are about to be released from prison. It’s part of the state’s new community notification law that went into effect at the beginning of the year.
The men, Willie Arthur Mosby and Anthony J. Macioch, are moving into a house about two blocks from a St. Paul elementary school. One woman at the meeting, whose nieces and nephews attend the school, was quoted in the paper as saying, “I am terrified, absolutely terrified. The kids are not safe.”
I understand her fear, but I kind of have to shake my head: Sex offenders are released from prison all the time, the only difference is that now we know about it.
It’s a tough situation. On the one hand community notification is supposed to make us safer. On the other, it might just make us more paranoid.
One of the things that I find troubling about notification is that it implies the offenders are dangerous and likely to commit more crimes — if that’s true, they shouldn’t be released from prison in the first place.
Take the case of James M. McGrath. In January he was sentenced to 10 months in prison and fined $1,500 for accosting two boys, ages 12 and 4, in southwest Minneapolis. He approached them on the sidewalk in broad daylight, made sexually explicit comments, pointed at his genitals and kept bumping up against the 12-year-old.
It was his sixth such offense since 1979, and it occurred, in fact, just three months after he was released from prison for a similar incident. He’d also gone through four (obviously unsuccessful) treatment programs. I’m sure many people who saw the story had a similar reaction to mine: “What is this guy doing walking the streets in the first place? Why isn’t he locked up?”
Granted, he hasn’t killed anyone and it sounds like his offenses don’t involve actual penetration or violent contact — great comfort to his victims, I’m sure. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but I don’t see the harm in locking him away for a long, long time — maybe even forever. Some crimes, such as theft or even muggings, are a pain in the neck and can really screw up your life. But they don’t tend to leave permanent scars. And it’s not like people who’ve been robbed go on to rob their own kids in a cycle of abuse that’s difficult to stop. (The issue of longer sentences brings up the problem of prison space, but if we gave lighter sentences, or even just fines and treatment to non-violent drug offenders, then we’d have lots more free beds in prison for the molesters.)
But until the laws change and sentences are expanded, we will be left with a stream of sex offenders leaving prisons to settle in our communities. About 400 sex offenders are expected to be released from Minnesota prisons this year. What will happen to them?
Most will rejoin society largely unnoticed. In the cases of level-one offenders (those deemed least likely to strike again), only law enforcement agencies, victims and witnesses will be alerted. For level two-offenders, schools and day care centers will also be notified. For level-three offenders, like Mosby and Macioch, the entire neighborhood will be alerted (not to mention the entire state if the media continue to cover the meetings). State officials expect to release between 60 and 120 level-three offenders this year.
So, can we sleep peacefully knowing where they live? Can we warn our children to beware of the peculiar man who lives three doors down and be done with it?
Of course not, and that’s one of the problems. The notification might not only cause people to have a heightened sense of fear, it might make them complacent. Just because you know that the guy down the street is a convicted sex offender doesn’t mean you know the man or woman next door isn’t a child molester who just never got caught.
The real key is to teach kids how to protect themselves, and to educate them about the difference between good touch and bad touch. Simply saying that a certain man is dangerous and everyone else is OK doesn’t make any sense.
If handled well, the notification system could work. If people use it as one of many tools to stay safe, that’s fine. But if it provokes vigilantism, then we have a problem. Take a look at what’s happened in some of the other states that have community notification.
In Washington, a man who served 34 months for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl was released from prison even though he’d refused treatment, had shown no remorse and still fantasized about murdering, raping and dismembering kids. Police were so freaked out by him that they posted details about his sexual fantasies on telephone polls. The community, in turn, freaked out and burned down the man’s house — he wasn’t injured.
The first problem is that 34 months in prison is not a sufficient punishment for assaulting a kid. I’m sure it falls within the prescribed guidelines and all that, but it’s just not right. Still, the fact remains that the man was released. How does burning down his house help matters? Maybe he’ll get the message and move — into someone else’s back yard. Or maybe it’ll simply agitate him and make another offense more likely.
There’s also the case of Pennsylvania truck driver Tom Vicari. When the heat went out in his apartment, he and his girlfriend spent the night with relatives (one of whom was a convicted sex offender) in nearby New Jersey — one of the states with community notification.
In the middle of the night, Vicari woke up to find himself in the grip of a ski-masked man who accused him of being a child molester and who then proceeded to beat the crap out of him. As the real molester ran out the door, another man threw a beer bottle through the living room window. Vicari, who has two kids of his own, later pointed out that it wouldn’t have been too cool if he’d been killed in the name of vigilantism. Too true.
We can only hope people in our state will be more reasonable. These offenders have paid their debt to society, according to the sentences established in our democratic system. If we think the penalties aren’t strong enough, we should work within that system to change them. Until the laws are revised, ex-convicts have the right to live their lives free from harassment. (Of course, when I hear about sexual assaults — especially when children are involved — my first reaction is that the offender has a right only to a speedy execution. But I quickly suppress that thought and remind myself that we live in a civilized society and that killing is wrong.)
Keeping a community informed is well and good, but keeping a community complacent, scared or revengeful isn’t going to help anyone.
Kris Henry’s column appears in the Daily every Thursday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected]
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