Despite statistics that show a decline in rape and other violent
sex crimes nationwide, a wave of preventative and punitive laws is
sweeping the country to put the public at ease and sexual offenders
in their place.
In the vanguard of these controversial initiatives is
California. Second in the nation for unwed teenage pregnancies, the
state is beefing up enforcement of rarely used statutory rape laws,
cracking down on adult men who sexually exploit young girls.
Last week, California also became the first state to mandate the
use of sex-drive-suppressing drugs for molesters - a move that is
expected to spawn similar measures in other states despite the
threat of constitutional challenges. The so-called "chemical
castration" law requires repeat offenders to be periodically
injected with substances shown to curb libido.
"As has happened in the past with assault and kidnapping laws,
the country is racing to get tough on sexual psychopaths after a
wave of high-profile cases," says Dean Wright, a professor of
sociology at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and chair of a
state criminal and juvenile justice advisory council. "Anything
that involves sexual deviance and children hits a raw nerve and you
can expect lightning-bolt reaction."
Cause of the crackdown
One lightning bolt that has spurred much of the recent
legislation struck in July 1994 after the murder of seven-year-old
Megan Kanda by her New Jersey neighbor, a convicted child molester.
The federal crime bill signed that year by Bill Clinton mandated
states to require sexual offenders released from prison to register
with law-enforcement agencies. It also encouraged states to
authorize release of "relevant" information to the public when
necessary for protection.
Because the law set a two-year time limit, and the deadline is
up in January, states are rushing to implement various forms of
registries requiring sexual offenders to notify authorities in the
communities where they settle after prison so that neighbors are
aware of their presence. Twenty-six states have adopted some form
of registry in the past 24 months. All 50 states now have some form
"We are seeing a flurry of activity right now by states who need
to make the deadline so they don't lose crime-control funds from
the federal government," says Scott Matson, a researcher for the
Washington state Institute for Public Policy, which tracks
sex-offender registry laws.
The Clinton administration is also pushing for an
FBI-administered central data-bank that tracks offenders from state
"That will make it much more difficult for child predators and
sex offenders to operate - because secrecy has always been a major
weapon in their ability to continue," says Bob Lee, director of the
Jacob Wetterling Foundation, a group that supports community
Legal challenges to registration in some states have led to
court decisions upholding their constitutionality. Judges have
found that registration is not a form of punishment and therefore
not subject to eighth amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual
punishment, though the practices remains controversial among civil
libertarians and others. …