Serial Sex Offenders: Their Rights vs. Your Life

Article excerpt

As Americans clamor for tougher prison sentences, at least one state has passed strict laws to keep repeat sex offenders behind bars - even when their jail terms are up, and sometimes for life.

Laura Snow had long since left California when she received a visit that changed her past - and her future. "I was living in Seattle," she recalls, "and I received a phone car from the district attorney's office in the county where I used to live. She told me she wanted to send up one of her assistants to speak to me about this old boyfriend of mine who was an anesthesiologist. She said they had some pictures they wanted to show me."

The district attorney herself flew in the next day and showed her the pictures. "What happened was that during the four years of our relationship, he had drugged me and made photographs and videotapes of himself having sex with me" says Snow. "They had found the pictures after they searched his house when another woman had pressed charges against him."

Today Snow - not her real name - lives in fear of her assailant, who is serving a 13-year sentence on drug and domestic violence convictions. He is eligible for parole in five years. "I live in terror," she says. "He has threatened to kill me when he gets out.... I don't believe that he can be cured. Believe me, I've read every report there is, and if what I read is true, he's just going to go back out on the street and do it again."

Unfortunately for Laura, there is no easy solution to the problem of sexual predators. But just as citizens across the country have clamored for tougher sentences for career felons, they also are condemning a criminal justice system that seems unable to address the high recidivism rates among serial sex offenders.

Last summer, for example, Californians were outraged when Melvin Carter was released from prison after serving only half of a 25-year sentence from 12 convictions for rape. The former engineer from Colorado had earned an early release through good" time - good behavior behind bars. Carter, whose victims generally have been of college age, has admitted to raping more than 100 women. Yet the criminal justice system had no alternative but to release him. "Let me say this," says Snow. "I am tired of hearing about so-called good time for criminals. Let me tell you, if you are a victim there is no |good' time."

The brutal abduction and murder of teenager Polly Klaas - also at the hands of a convicted sex offender - underscores Snow's outrage. Many Americans are debating the delicate balance between individual rights and public safety. Some 27 states already have enacted legislation that forces serial sex offenders to register with local law enforcement agencies upon moving into a community. But do such laws actually deter rape and other crimes? In Washington state, people not only are asking the question but also are finding some answers.

Washington is home to Earl Shriner. If an individual could be singled out as being responsible for the wave of community registration programs for sex offenders, he is that person. In 1989, Shriner forced a 7-year-old boy off his bike in the woods near his Tacoma home. There he raped the boy, stabbed him, strangled him and cut off his penis. Miraculously, the boy survived to accuse his attacker whom, it turned out, had a 24-year history of sexual violence and had spent a decade in prison after kidnapping and raping two 16-year-old girls.

If the violence of Shriner's crime sent the residents of this bucolic state reeling, the revelation that prison authorities knew he was dangerous galvanized them. After all, Shriner was a man who had admitted to a cell mate that he fantasized about outfitting a van with cages - the better to kidnap, molest and murder children. In the ensuing political frenzy, then-Gov. Booth Gardner formed a task force to examine the laws governing sex offenses. After a year of study, the task force delivered bold recommendations, including indeterminate sentences for sex crimes. …