Iowa Law Won’t Protect Kids from Sex Offenders

Was the opinion issued Friday by the Iowa Supreme Court an expansion or a clarification of the state's existing residency requirements for sex offenders? At the end of the day, according to some members of law enforcement, it doesn't matter one way or another.

"The law does little to protect children and young adults," said a veteran Iowa Sex Crimes Task Force leader who requested a name not be used. "It was a 'warm fuzzy' law that made lawmakers look good, and let parents breathe easier. All it really does is provide a false sense of security. It's a farce that's difficult to enforce and probably has the end result of making the general public less safe."

On Friday the Iowa Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the state's residency law for sex offenders that requires those convicted of crimes with a minor to live at least 2,000 feet away from a school or child care facility. The case involved Polk County resident Floyd Wright, who was convicted of statutory rape in 1977. Wright served his sentence but never had to be listed on the state's sex offender registry because his offense took place nearly 20 years before the registry existed.

When the building Wright lived in was sold, he was forced to move to a new location. Since he was on probation for driving while barred, Wright informed his probation officer of the address change. It was the probation officer who informed Wright that the 1977 offense would prohibit him from moving to the new location, which was within the 2,000 foot buffer.

Wright filed suit in district court on the grounds that the residency restriction did not apply to him because he was never required to be on the Iowa Sex Offender Registry. He also argued that the residency requirement violated his constitutional right to find adequate and reasonable housing.

The district court ruled that the vague law included all who had ever been convicted of sex crimes with a minor. The Iowa Supreme Court upheld the district court ruling on appeal and added that Wright's constitutional claims were moot, given that he could live in areas not covered by the residency restrictions and continue to engage in many community events and activities.

"In my experience the sex offender residency restrictions have had the opposite of the intended affect," the officer said. "Our best defense against individuals with a higher re-offense risk assessment is to know where they are within the community. Because the residency requirement often severely limits available housing, many sex offenders — even some required by law to be on the registry — are choosing not to report their current location."

Because the law was written to include all sex offenders, even those who were convicted several years ago or those who have been dropped from the registry, the officer said that landlords and law enforcement are left with few tools to enforce the residency restriction.

"Anyone can view the Iowa Sex Offender Registry, and I know many landlords within the required buffer zones do check for potential renters on it," the officer said. "How does a landlord or a parent check if the offender isn't required to register? When we do find offenders living in restricted areas, it is often a result of a secondary offense — drug possession, disorderly house."

When asked who could be held liable if someone convicted of a sex crime against a minor moved into a restricted area and then committed another offense against a minor, the officer couldn't provide an answer.

"I don't know," the officer said. "The perp, of course, would bear the criminal burden. But, I don't know if there is grounds for a civil suit against the property owner or against local jurisdiction. That's another question for the court."

It was many of these same types of concerns that led Iowa County Attorneys Association Executive Director Corwin Ritchie to issue a statement against sex offender residency restrictions in December 2006. Citing statistics that 80 percent to 90 percent of sex crimes against children are committed by a relative or acquaintance; research showing no correlation between residency restrictions and reduction of sex offenses against children; and observations by law enforcement that residency restrictions cause offenders to become homeless, change residences without notice, register false address or disappear, Ritchie argued that the restriction should be replaced with "more effective measures that do not produce the negative consequences that have attended the current statute."

The more effective measures, according to the ICAA statement, are:

  • A statute creating defined protected areas that sex offenders would be prohibited from entering except in limited and safe circumstances. Such areas might include schools and child care facilities. Entrance to these areas would be allowed only for activities involving the offender's own child and only with advance notice and approval.
  • The restriction should cover offenses against "children" (under age 14) rather than "minors" (under age 18).
  • The statute should specifically preempt local ordinances that attempt to create additional restrictions on sex offenders.
  • Any restriction that carries the expectation that it can be effectively enforced must be applied to a more limited group of offenders than is covered by the current residency restriction.
  • Sex offender treatment both inside and outside of prison should be fully funded and improved.
  • Measures should be enacted that aim at keeping all young people safe from all offenders. This should include programs that focus on the danger of abuse that may lie within the child's family and circle of acquaintances.
  • Recognize that child safety from sex offenses is not amendable to simple solutions by creating a Sex Offender Treatment and Supervision Task Force to identify effective strategies to reduce child sex offenses.

"These observations of Iowa prosecutors are not motivated by sympathy for those committing sex offenses against children, but by our concern that the legislative proposals designed to protect children must be both effective and enforceable," Ritchie wrote. "Anything else lets our children down."

Parents who worry about sex offenders harming their children should do at least two things, according to the Sex Crimes Task Force officer: "Parents need to consider that sex offenders don't just sit, looking out their front window, and waiting for a child to walk by. They are members of the community and are perfectly capable of getting in a car or on public transportation and traveling to places throughout the city or neighboring city. Parents also need to understand that people who sexually abuse children don't have 'a look' or 'a way' about them. Most children aren't snatched from a public place. Unfortunately, most sexually abused children suffer the crime at the hands of someone known to them."

While the Supreme Court action clarified which sex offenders are restricted by the current residency requirements, it did not impact those sex offenders who lived within the "safe zones" prior to the law being passed. Those sex offenders, under "grandfathering," can continue to live at their current residences, regardless of proximity to protected facilities.

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  • invalid-0

    That’s what parents are for.

  • invalid-0

    Attention all politicans, time to turn the focus to restorative justice for the offenders and into programs to ensure that the victims of abuse get extensive help so that they don’t commit a similar crime in the future. Many current offenders were molested or abused. This can hopefully break the cycle of abuse and avoid future victims. Law enforcement should concentrate on the high-risk offender, the Tier 3 offender rather than the Tier 1 and 2 offenders. Also, many offenders who served their sentences and have been caught up in this mania to “protect our children” should be removed from the registry if their crime was a 1st time offense and have lived a crime free life since their offense. Narrow the scope and allow law enforcement to concentrate on those who need extra monitoring. These “feel good” laws do NOTHING to protect your child and no law passed so far, today and in the future will protect them. As the previous comment indicates, “that’s what parents are for” is spot on.

  • invalid-0

    Most people do not realize this, but it is the truth. sexual abuse and neglect are defined as crimes by Iowa law but not Child Abuse. But Chet Culver wants to ban smoking. Guess he’ll change his mind if anything ever happened to his own children. Maybe not. Iowa’s sex offenders laws are the most lenient than any other state. It is a sad place to live for children, and more importantly not safe. Less than 1% of sex offenders are rehabilitatable. So why release them early? Well Iowa releases child sex offenders early due to good behavior. Obviously they are on good behavior b/c there were no children in prison for them to prey upon. Wake Iowa LAWMAKERS it is time to start doing something worth doing unlike punishing smokers for smoking cigarettes. Waddafxup?

  • lynda-waddington

    Most people don't realize it, because it isn't true. Iowa Code 232 defines anyone under the age of 18 as a child. The code also defines the following categories of child abuse: physical abuse, mental injury, sexual abuse, denial of critical care, child prostitution, presence of illegal drugs, manufacturing or possession of dangerous substances. In addition, Iowa Code 622.10 discusses those qualified to make a judgment of "mental injury" of a child.

    You also wrote, "Less than 1% of sex offenders are rehabilitatable." This statement is not upheld by the U.S. Bureau of Justice. In their study ("Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994") just 5 percent of sex offenders followed for three years after their release from prison were arrested for another sex crime. Another study by the same agency in 2003 found that 3.3 percent of the released child molesters were arrested again (within the three year period of exiting prison) for committing another sex crime against a child.

    One of the largest studies ever conducted by the Justice Department (it included nearly 10,000 convicted of rape, sexual assault and child molestation) found that sex offenders had a re-arrest rate 25 percent LOWER than all other criminals.

    The smoking ban — or the so-called ban — is a completely different subject. It's actually one where we might find agreement, but trying to make a point about it while using misinformation on child abuse and sexual predators makes no sense.

    The issue here is if the current laws, recently clarified by the Iowa Supreme Court, are effective. Do they protect the children living in our state and, if so, is there a way that we could make them better?

  • invalid-0

    Again…someone with the “high reoffense rate” garbage. I think that’s what got this whole thing going in the first place. If the people who believe that would just do a little bit of research, they would find that police, probation officers, prosecutors, and defense attorneys are all saying that the “high reoffense rate” thing is a complete lie. Look it up for yourself on the US Department of Justice website:

    It’s low, less than 5%. The only group that has a lower reoffense rate is murderers, and it always has been that way. The problem is that a couple of years ago, politicians looking for an easy target, accompanied by nearly all major news outlets, began spouting off the “high reoffense rate” lie. So now there are many people out there who are believing that it’s true and pushing for harsher and harsher laws. The fact is that it’s not true, though. Sex offenders have one of the lowest reoffense rates of any criminal, and always have. So why send out this huge lie that has affected some 600 thousand plus people, not to mention their families, children, and anybody close to them? Created retroactive laws that reach back 50 years in some states and completely wreck someone’s life who hasn’t gotten in any trouble whatsoever? Also, many people on the list are first-time offenders, many of them teens who had a girlfriend who was just a couple years younger. That was my situation some 9 and a half years ago. I was told that I would not be made to register. I finished college, went out and got a job, bought a house, then 5 years into it, the law just “changed” and they threw me up on the list. Lies, retroactive laws, public humiliation, and banishment have no place in America. Wait till it happens to you. Wait till one day you turn on the TV and hear it lying about you.

  • invalid-0

    We just posted nearly the same thing at almost exactly the same time :~)

  • invalid-0

    expain to me and all of my other classmates in college then. we were a little confused ourselves, but it is true. want to know something else that is true about iowa law? anyone who committed child abuse say 10 years ago can now work in a daycare b/c in iowa after ten years it is erased from their record. i will talk w/ my professor and prove to you all that i am right on this one. i have had two professors say the same thing. one in criminal justice and one in social work. i do believe that they would know the laws. okay here is a direct quote from my professor…..”child abuse is not a crime defined by iowa law unless it hits neglect and/or sexual abuse.” What? that is exactly what we said but that is the truth.

  • invalid-0

    Defined by Iowa Code section 232.68

    physical abuse, mental injury, sexual abuse, denial of critical care, child prostitution, presence of illegal drugs, manufacturing or possession of a dangerous substance, bestiality in the presence of a minor, and cohabits with a registered sex offender.

    this maybe a way for iowa to CYA but child abuse itself is not one of the nine categories defined by Iowa law.

    Your head will really spin on this one…. we also learned the same about incest in iowa. i too am just as floored over it obviously, and everyone was shocked just as you all are. it really does not make sense, but obviously these two highly intelligent people know iowa and do know the laws.

  • invalid-0

    i should have reitterated a bit more, because i was talking about child sex offenders. However, the age of consent in Iowa is 18, and does not matter if it was consensual or not. I am sorry about your experience, but laws are laws.
    child sex offenders do not just wake up one day and say hey i am 40 now i want to sexually abuse children, they can be of any age, color, race, gender, etc.

    about statistics… you do not need statistics but facts. the facts are out there. for example “how to catch a predator” you would think those men would have learned their lesson the first time they were caught, but no they continued to pop back up trying to victimize a child. look at the bentley brothers (jetsetta gage murder) well the brother who had sexually abused her multiple times well he had served time for the same crimes then was released to only do it again. he must have been in that 5%. there are hundreds, if not thousands of other cases proving that it is much higher than 5%. who needs statistics when the facts are reality. statistics are biased (getting paid to rehabilitate), not all crimes are reported, and the list goes on. Here is a story for you too (in IOWA)… A little boy was sexually abused by his mother’s boyfriend, in court he was referring the boyfriend’s penis by calling it a tail. The judge threw it out stating that the young boy did not use the correct terminology. The man has since moved on to live his life. One can only hope he learned his lesson but that isn’t the point. He should have been charged! The bottom line is that Iowa is not protecting our children.

  • invalid-0

    addition: the reason the recidivisim rate may be low is that they relocate and cannot be found, and because they have not been caught yet. the list goes on, but I hate it when people make excuses for child sex offenders. There is no excuse for that type of crime, and it should be punishable to fullest extent of the law. Kids never forget, and it follows them for the rest of their lives while the offender wanders freely. it just is not right no matter what anyone says!