Recently, virtually every state has been cracking down on pedophiles, passing strict laws intended to make it harder for predators to victimize children. But while you may feel confident and relieved that the government is getting tough on sex offenders, experts warn against letting your guard down. "The laws can give parents a false sense of security," says Jill Levenson, PhD, a professor at Lynn University, in Boca Raton, Florida. That's because there's little consensus on which tactics are the most effective, or even whether they do more harm than good in some cases. Here's a look at the pros and cons of each.
How it helps: In 1996, Congress required all states to register everyone who had committed a sex crime against a child; two years later, the information was made public online. The law was created in response to the murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was killed by Jesse Timmendequas, a convicted sex offender who lived across the street from her. "If we had been aware of his record, my daughter would be alive today," says Megan's mother, Maureen.
It used to be difficult for parents to search a registry for a specific name, zip code, or city. But that changed last year when President Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which created a national, easy-to-use registry (nsopr.gov). Plus, states can now share information on sex offenders, which makes it harder for them to disappear and allows U.S. Marshals to track anyone who runs or fails to register.
The downside: Many convicted pedophiles can elude registration or use a fake address. When The Dallas Morning News conducted a three-month investigation of registered sex offenders in North Texas last year, it found that one in six weren't living at the address they provided, and 46 percent couldn't be located through certified mail and phone calls.
How they help: Since 2004 at least 27 states have passed laws forbidding sex offenders from living within a specified distance of schools, childcare centers, and other places kids gather. Cities and towns can also pass residency-restriction or -notification laws. Currently, lawmakers in many states and municipalities are trying to enlarge restricted zones, often up to 2,600 feet.
The downside: Residency restrictions are meant to create safety zones for kids, but not everyone is convinced they do. In fact, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children doesn't support them. "They lead people to believe that their kids live in a sex abuse?free area," says director of legislative affairs Carolyn Atwell-Davis. An association of county prosecutors in Iowa recently asked that their restrictions be rescinded, saying they'd backfired. The prosecutors argued that the laws caused "offenders to become homeless, change residences without notifying authorities of their new location, register false addresses, or to simply disappear." In other areas, opponents of residency restrictions claim that the law forces offenders out of populated locales and into rural areas, where it becomes harder to track them.
GPS Tracking Devices
How they help: Between 2004 and 2005, three states -- Louisiana, Tennessee, and Massachusetts -- created pilot programs that require some of the most dangerous paroled offenders to wear GPS anklets or bracelets so police can track their movements. Since then, 22 other states have passed laws requiring or authorizing GPS tracking, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
The downside: Tracking devices can be useful for offenders with a history of parole violations or who are likely to elude registration, says Dr. Levenson. However, the system is expensive, costing up to 10 dollars a day per offender. And while the device can tell police where someone is, it can't give any information about what he's doing. Plus, the system won't prevent crimes from occurring in seemingly innocent places, such as the pedophile's home or a friend's or family member's house. Since GPS tracking been in use for only about two years, its effectiveness is still unknown.