Do Sex Offender Laws Really Work?

A jury is set to hear closing arguments in the trial of John Couey, a convicted sex offender charged with murdering 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford. Stories like hers have inspired cities and states around the country to pass laws restricting where sex offenders live.

These laws are designed to keep the estimated 600,000 sex offenders in the United States away from children. But Ohio mother Margie Slagle is one of a growing group of critics who say these laws unfairly lump lesser offenders in with the worst criminals — and that they may actually be backfiring.

Slagle was 40 and a divorced mother of three and when she decided to go to law school. Her first case as a law student shocked her: She defended a sex offender.

"As a mom, I was terrified of sex offenders — to me, (that) means child molesters," she told Early Show national correspondent Tracy Smith.

But the biggest surprise came after Slagle met 33-year-old Dion Burge, a registered sex offender — and found herself vigorously taking up his cause.

"He was not a child molester," Slagle said. "He had consensual sex with a woman who was not old enough to consent — and that was a crime."

But what Slagle calls a "woman" was a teenage girl nearly a decade younger than Burge. The girl was living by herself, and Burge says he thought she was 18. He pleaded guilty to corruption of a minor and served a year in prison. He registers every year as a sex offender. It was his only offense.

"He's a great father," Slagle said. "He loves children. It's ridiculous to lump him in with as a child molester and as a threat to the community."

Only about 10 percent of abused children are targeted by strangers, and some critics say too many resources go into worrying about strangers when more of the focus should be on preventing abuse from people kids know. Critics fear that as more and more communities enact these laws, offenders will tire of moving and end up not registering at all.

Since Burge's conviction nine years ago, new sex offender laws were written prohibiting him from living within 1,000 feet of school property. Burge has moved three times — away from his own children

"It's been a nightmare for him; he's already been forced to leave the kids," Slagle said. "He's been taking care of the kids while his wife works third shift."

"It just didn't seem fair to make them move for something I did, basically. before they were even born, and I didn't want to uproot them," Burge said.

Now the sheriff's office wants him to move again because he's within 1,000 feet of a football field that's owned by a school.

"I thought it was a mistake, honestly, because I've lived here all this time and I've never heard of this," Burge said.

The 1,000-foot distance is measured as the crow flies. But there is a river in between and Burge would have to walk nearly 3,000 feet to get to the field. Slagle is fighting the crow fly measurement in court.

"I was confused. Why are they making this person move?" Slagle said.

For prosecutor Gary Nasal, the reasons are clear:

"Certainly he is a sexually oriented offender, and certainly, I would classify him as a child molester," Nasal said. "He did, in fact, groom this child and pursue her."

Nasal says the river is immaterial.

"You can't expect the legislature or the police for that matter to calculate and compensate for every manmade and geographic anomaly that may appear in the way," he said.

But for Slagle the question became not whether the offender is dangerous, but whether the residential restrictions actually protect children?

"The law doesn't prevent anyone from going to the school and sitting in front of a school all day, Slagle said." It just prevents people, offenders, from sleeping within 1,000 feet of the school."

Nancy Sabin of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, which fights child exploitation, said research shows laws that restrict where sex offenders can live are "pretty ineffective."

In fact, 15 states are struggling with residency restrictions. In states like Iowa, many fear sex offenders are going underground.

"They've actually had less compliance on the sexual offender registry," Sabin said. "They've got sex offenders living in the cars on highway number signs along the freeway, so their compliance is poor, their supervision has deteriorated. There's a lot of downsides."

But parents tend to agree with the law, which will make it difficult to change.

"I definitely think that they have to move 'em away from schools and protect the children as much as they can," father Don Hubbard said.

Slagle will continue to fight against these laws and for a man she says she'd trust with her own children.

"Hopefully we can help him and make this end," she said, "so he can go on and live his life."
  • Caitlin Johnson

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