KIDS Act: How Far is The Law’s Online Reach?

The following is an excerpt from a chat transcript posted to Perverted-Justice.org. The full transcript led to the conviction of a sex offender.

fleet_captain_jaime_wolfe: You do know I am looking for a sex-slave, right?

sadlilgrrl : yes

fleet_captain_jaime_wolfe: Do you want to be that sex-slave?

sadlilgrrl: yes

fleet_captain_jaime_wolfe: Are you sure about that?

sadlilgrrl: yes. ill do anything to stop feeling so empty.

In the chat, sadlilgrrl is actually Del Harvey,
Information First coordinator for Perverted Justice, an online
organization that recruits volunteer contributors to pose as
underage children in chat rooms. According to Perverted Justice,
Fleet_captain_jaime_wolfe is a man named Paul Short.

There are child-safety advocates who insist that convicts like Short
should not be forced to submit their e-mail addresses to the government.

The KIDS Act

This month, a bill goes before the House of Representative’s
Judiciary Committee that would require Short and all other convicted
sex offenders to register any e-mail address, instant message
address, or similar Internet identifier the sex offender used or will
use to communicate over the Internet with the National Sex Offender
Registry.

The bill is called the Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual
Predators Act of 2007 or KIDS Act. Congressmen Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.),
Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio), Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and
Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-AZ) introduced the
KIDS Act in January.

“Millions of teenagers log on to Web sites like MySpace and they, and
their parents, shouldn’t have to worry about running into these
predators online,” Senator Schumer said in a joint statement to
announce the bill.

“We know that many predators are using the Internet to find victims.
This legislation will take a big step toward keeping sexual predators
out of the online neighborhoods our kids frequent, Schumer said at
the time.

Social networks MySpace and Facebook support the act and say they
would use it to block convicted sex offenders from using their sites.

But some, including academics and child-safety advocates, take issue
with Schumer’s claims, saying they misrepresent the issue. This group won’t go so far as to say they are against the
KIDS Act, but they do argue it doesn’t solve any real problems.

Overlooking a problem?

David Finklehor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research
Center at the University of New Hampshire, said characterizations such as Senator Schumer’s are “based on anxieties and not on a careful analysis of the nature of the problem or the way in which kids get
harmed.”

Preventing convicted sex offenders from joining social networks through something like the KIDS Act might do some good but won’t solve the problem. The notion that the main problem is social networking sites is “overdrawn.”

“Our research suggests that kids who interact on those sites are not at
any higher risk,” Finklehor told InternetNews.com. “If kids are taking risks — suggesting they’re interested in sex, talking with people they don’t know about sexual topics — they can run into danger. But only in the same way that they could going to parties.”

According to Finklehor’s research, only 7 percent of
arrests for statutory rape in 2000 were Internet-related. He says
that most of those cases are what he calls “criminal seductions,”
where most of the victims are teenagers seduced by adults who did
not try to conceal the fact that they were adults.

Only 5 percent of offenders
concealed the fact they were adults from their victims. Eighty
percent of the offenders were “quite” explicit about their sexual
intentions, and, in half the cases, victims are described as being in
love with the offender or feeling a close friendship.

“There’s some sense that if you can zone [sex offenders] out of
people’s neighborhoods and social interaction spaces, somehow kids
will be safe. That’s a natural, crude, popular analysis. But it
doesn’t respond to what we know about the nature of child molestation.”

Instead of passing laws like the KIDS Act, Finklehor wants lawmakers
to treat online and offline child molestation as a public health
issue to be dealt with scientifically.

He also wants the government
to focus more on prevention education aimed at teenagers to persuade
them to avoid engaging in relationships with adults online.

Next page: Political posturing?

Political posturing?

Others go to the core of the KIDS Act, claiming the mistake is in requiring convicted sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses.

One such advocate is the Reverend C. David Hess, the New York State Representative of SOhopeful International, an organization that “is working with families, citizens and professionals to change the way legislation mandates the registration, tracking and community notification of non-violent, low-risk sex offenders.”

Hess’s main point is that most sex offenders are capable of changing
their ways, but that laws like the KIDS Act prevent it from happening.

He cites a study from the State of New York
Department of Correctional Services, which set sex offender
recidivism at 2.1 percent. A 1994 U.S. Department of Justice study
puts the number at 3.5 percent.

By way of comparison, the New York study reports that, of those who
committed robbery and were released from prison between 1985 and
2001, 6.5 percent returned to prison for another robbery.

Hess said the reason sex offender recidivism is so low is the crimes
are caused by a disease, which he argues can be cured in a stable
environment. But he said the KIDS Act and other such laws rob sex
offenders of such an environment.

“Corrections experts will say that the most important thing to prevent
recidivism is stable employment, home, family and social support,” Hess
told InternetNews.com. “These laws are destructive to all of those things. Therefore, rather than making communities safer, they put people more at risk.”

The KIDS Act “isn’t serious legislation or a serious
attempt to address a real problem,” he continued. “It’s all political posturing.”

Certainly, politicians on all levels pay attention to the issue. After her June
appointment, New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram’s first order
of business was to serve the Fox Interactive Media (FIM)
company a subpoena for information on any accounts held by sex
offenders.

She followed with another subpoena in July. Milgram’s
attentions stem from a mid-May letter signed by attorneys general
from Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North
Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania asking for similar information.

A long list of states, including Kentucky, Virginia and Florida, have
already signed bills similar to the KIDS Act into law.

An unfair net?

Michael Iacopino, co-chairman of the sex offender task force at the
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, is concerned that the KIDS Act too broadly lumps a diverse range of
sex offenders into one category. He noted that some states consider public
urination and streaking sex offenses.

He also argued that there should be a distinction between an 18-year-old who commits statuary rape with an underage boyfriend or
girlfriend and child molesters.

“These bills paint everybody with the same brush and don’t
recognize that there’s a large difference when it comes to people who
have been convicted of sex crimes,” Iacopino said.

He also echoed Hess’s take on sex-offender recidivism. He said
laws like the KIDS Act distract the public from actually solving the
problem.

“Sex offenders as a group are one of the most treatable convicts in
the country,” Iacopino said.

“The way to deal with them is through treatment, not
through mandatory sentences and exposing them to ridicule in society,
making them live in leper colonies, and putting them away for more
time after they’ve done their time. Those ideas come from a need to
get elected than any real intelligent consideration of these
offenses.”

But there’s a reason politicians are able to tap the
public’s fear. If there’s an issue that’s easy to get behind, it’s one that would make the lives of the Paul Shorts out there less
comfortable. Few get worked up in their defense.

But difficult as it might seem to protect the rights of men like Paul
Short, who in the chat excerpted from above openly admitted he was
“looking for a younger girl to train to be a slave,” Iacopino, Hess
and others are still convinced it’s the right thing to do for the
public good.

Still others, such as Finklehor, are less concerned with
sex offenders and more interested in promoting science and
education as a means to prevent child molestation.

But all those who either don’t believe the KIDS Act solves problems
or go further to actively fight it, share Iacopino’s view in one
regard.

“The problem is that most of this sex-offender legislation is based
on the ‘get tough’ model instead of the ‘get smart’ model.”

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