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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Unintended Consequences or Were They Intended

Article Last Updated: 1/08/2006 02:09 AM
Iowa law has sex offenders packing bags
By Michael Riley
Denver Post Staff Writer

Des Moines, Iowa - David Johnson fiddles with the orange extension cord that snakes into the covered bed of his battered pickup, powering the electric blanket and small space heater he hopes will keep him warm as the temperature plummets toward 10 below.

Beside his inflatable mattress, the butt of the night's last cigarette lies in an ashtray, while nearby there's a borrowed cellphone. His young daughter calls on it nightly, he said, "to check on me and make sure I'm warm."

A convicted sex offender, Johnson has spent the night in a parking lot on the outskirts of Iowa's capital city since mid-November. According to an ordinance approved in Des Moines two months before, it's one of the few places in the city where he can legally sleep.

"My daughter knows where I'm going. It's hard on her to say goodbye at night," said Johnson, 42. "I can't live like this forever. It's like I'm getting punished twice."

As Colorado lawmakers consider tough new restrictions on where sex offenders can live, work or go, Iowa has become a national model - of preventive law enforcement for some, of unchecked fear for others.

A 4-year-old Iowa law bans sex offenders whose victims were minors from living in the vast majority of the state's residential areas. It creates 2,000-foot "buffer zones" around schools and day-care centers where offenders can't live, defined in the law as where they sleep.

Enforcement of the law began late this summer after it was upheld by both the Iowa Supreme Court and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Those legal decisions prompted cities and towns across the state to pile on even tougher restrictions.

Officials in Des Moines this fall added parks, libraries, swimming pools, even recreational trails to the restricted-zone list, virtually exiling sex offenders from the state's largest city.

The federal court decision on the Iowa rules opens the way for Colorado to pass a similar law, said Rep. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch. Harvey said he will introduce a bill - with smaller buffer zones than Iowa but adding classes of offenders - during the legislative session that opens Wednesday.

Democratic House Speaker Andrew Romanoff said he backs the idea.

Few places left to live

In Des Moines, police have been knocking on the doors of more than 300 sex offenders whose residences now violate the law, giving them 30 days to leave. Among those who will have to relocate are two elderly men at a nursing home and one at a veterans hospital.

As offenders try to comply with the new laws, some have clustered in rundown hotels around the edge of Iowa's cities. Among the addresses now listed on the state's sex-offender registry are a car at a truck stop and a tent under an interstate bridge.

"There simply isn't many places for them to go," said Lori Kelly, the Des Moines police investigator administering the city's enforcement of the laws.

"I tell them about the motels, but that's expensive. When you make $8 an hour, how long can you stay in a Motel 6?"

Critics - including researchers and law enforcement experts - warn that the laws' results are the opposite of what lawmakers intended: Fewer offenders are registering, and those who comply are left with little family or medical support, increasing the chances they may strike again.

"We've had people become homeless. We've had people absconding from their supervisors," said Jeanette Bucklew, a deputy director of the Iowa Department of Corrections. "Our parole officers are frustrated, to say the least."

But those concerns have been muffled by a spate of high- profile murders by sex offenders that has created a backlash of new laws and restrictions across the country.

In Florida, a sex offender was accused of snatching 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford from her bed in February and holding her captive for two days before raping and killing her.

In March, Iowa police say, 10-year-old Jetseta Gage was killed after a sex offender took her from her grandmother's home in Cedar Rapids.

Though 14 states now have some form of residency restriction for sex offenders, Colorado is not one of them. Instead, the state categorizes offenders by risk and authorities are required to notify neighbors in writing when violent sexual predators move into an area. And offenders sometimes are ordered to stay out of certain areas as part of the probation process.

But a series of controversial cases has convinced Colorado lawmakers of the need to toughen local laws, legislators and enforcement officials say.

A man categorized as a violent sexual predator moved into a Highlands Ranch neighborhood last year, generating increased police presence and an outcry from neighbors until the man left. There have been similar cases recently in Fort Collins and Lakewood.

Harvey, the Highlands Ranch lawmaker, said his bill would make it illegal for violent predators, multiple offenders or sex offenders with minor victims to live or work within 1,500 feet of a school, day-care center or playground anywhere in the state.

Romanoff said Democrats are behind the idea and have been working on proposals of their own.

"You will find broad bipartisan support for legislation like this," the House speaker said. "This ought not be a party-line fight."

In Iowa, the state law and court actions have set off a chain reaction even its staunchest advocates didn't foresee.

After Des Moines passed tougher restrictions, many of the suburbs that ring the city followed. In November, Polk County, fearing that sex offenders from Des Moines would be forced into nearby rural areas, passed its own ordinance closing off 90 percent of the county.

Now towns and cities in neighboring Nebraska and South Dakota are considering similar measures, hoping to cut off what they fear will be an influx of Iowa offenders.

In Des Moines, authorities believe 120 sex offenders have voluntarily left, but police have also arrested 20 people who refused or were unable to move.

"Oftentimes there are things in law enforcement that you don't find particularly attractive or particularly pleasant to enforce," said state Sen. Jerry Behn, the Republican who sponsored the original state law. "(But) if it protects our most vulnerable, then it's worthwhile."

"You still have to move"

Pulling on a long coat, Des Moines police Detective Denise Schafnitz braces herself as she walks into the bitter cold and toward a gold Ford Taurus to begin what is now her daily routine. A stack of sex-offender files on the seat beside her, Schafnitz pulls up to Taco John's, a fast-food restaurant on the city's east side. Inside, Charles Kiss works the lunch shift.

A sex offender convicted in 1998 of lascivious acts with a child, Kiss already moved once in the past month to comply with the city's residency restrictions. But his new address is also in a restricted zone.

As Schafnitz tells him he must move again by the end of the week, Kiss pleads his case: His crime was a long time ago, he's been married nine years, and for most of that time he's been in therapy.

He's taken time off from work, lost a promotion and been separated from his family - all, he says, in a vain effort to comply with the new law.

"I completed the program. I kept my promise to stay out of trouble," said Kiss, 37.

"According to the way the law is written," responds Schafnitz, giving what is by now her standard litany, "you still have to move."

The law's critics say that it unfairly groups all sex offenders into the same category, making no distinction between violent sexual predators and, say, the Iowa man convicted of exposing himself at a party with minors present.

Among those affected is a Winterset man convicted of statutory rape for having sex with his underage girlfriend when he was 22 and she was 15. The couple is now married with two children.

The city manager in Ely, Iowa, Aaron Anderson, said he sympathizes with sex offenders who have completed recovery programs and are trying to get a new start.

He also says a small town is different.

"It becomes a much less abstract concept when you're talking about a town of 1,500 and I know every kid in the community," Anderson said.

A farming town turned bedroom community south of Cedar Rapids, Ely has no school or registered day care. Not long after authorities began enforcing the state law in Cedar Rapids, a local television station highlighted Ely as one of the few places in the area offenders could live.

"They basically said that Ely was wide open," Anderson said.

By September, the Town Council passed an ordinance that made a farm field on the edge of town virtually the only legal place a registered sex offender with a minor victim can live in Ely.

"You don't want to be the last one standing without some kind of protection," said Dale Stanek, the town's mayor.

Stanek's sentiment is spreading. Sixty-five towns in Iowa have asked Ely officials to send them copies of their sex-offender ordinance.

Behn, the Iowa law's original sponsor, said that if he could write the measure all over again, he'd do it differently. He might shrink the size of the exclusion zones, leaving more room in cities for offenders to live. And he would more narrowly focus the law on violent predators.

But with an election next year, he and his colleagues are unlikely to weaken a law that has proved to be popular with voters, Behn said.

"Among law enforcement, there is some concern that the law as currently drafted isn't as productive as we'd like to see it. In fact, some will assert it doesn't do any good at all," Behn said.

"(But) do you want a postcard going into your district saying you voted to lower the separation distance and therefore you're soft on crime?

"It's going to be very different in an election year to do anything," he said.

Staff writer Michael Riley can be reached at 303-820-1614 or