Imagine you have a life-threatening illness, but your doctor offers you no treatment or even advice. That's about what happens to parents who are notified that a registered sex offender lives on their block. Most people know nothing more about appropriately using sex offender information than a cancer patient does about curing herself. Worse, without guidance, the likely responses in both cases are panic, fear and an overwhelming sense of helplessness.
That response has been evident in recent weeks across the nation, including Western New York. Earlier this month, a 15-year-old Buffalo boy was charged with murdering and dismembering his mother. Police believe a 50-year-old pedophile was an instigator. Another recent story by reporter Gene Warner showed that more than 500 Level 3 offenders live in the eight-county region. Their level of supervision is troubling and, beyond that, their numbers don't tell the whole story. Other offenders, never arrested, are on no list.
Against that backdrop, it is hardly surprising that activism is sprouting at all levels of government. In Albany, Assembly Republicans want Democrats who control that chamber to allow for extended detention of certain sex offenders even after they have served their sentences. In Amherst, Town Council Member Shelly Schratz is pushing the same law and has also begun what she hopes will be a national grass-roots effort. Called Protect Our Children, her organization demands stiffer penalties and more creative supervision, including the use of electronic tracking devices.
The truth is that a variety of responses will be necessary to truly reduce the threat posed by sexual predators. Changes in law must be part of that strategy, yet attentiveness by adults and the education of children are crucial components of any successful strategy.
We support a carefully controlled program of civil commitment for certain high-risk sex offenders, and electronic tracking of others. But we also think the law -- which finally removed government secrecy on sex offenders -- is careless about disseminating emotionally combustible information. Just last month a man with a history of emotional trouble confessed to killing two Level 3 sex offenders in Washington after he pulled the names from a sheriff's department Web site.
Laws on community notification should be about empowering the community, not provoking it. New York and the other states with "Megan's Laws" should revisit them with an eye toward educating the public on how to use information about sex offenders, and how to protect their children even if no registered offenders live nearby.
In the meantime, organizations such as the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children can offer guidance. Its Web site is www.missingkids.com and its closest office is in Rochester. The phone number is 585-242-0900.