ACLU: Florida Sex Offender Reform Should be "Based on Facts, Not Fear"

For legislators - especially the ones looking to earn tough-on-crime points - it's open season on sex offenders. Following a Sun Sentinel investigation that found a high number of re-offenders among the worst of the worst, Tallahassee has elbowed everything else to the side, clamoring to find new ways to cool down the frayed nerves of a frightened public.

But as new ideas for handling sex offenders keeping popping up, it's time we look at where the line between safety-at-all cost and constitutional rights come into play.

Take No Porn for Pervs. Last week, we wrote about how Sen. Kelli Stargel and Rep. Katie Edwards were pushing off legislation that would make it illegal for sex offenders on probation to view, access, own or posses "obscene, pornographic, or sexually stimulating visual or auditory material."

First off, the whole idea behind the bill is the light-on-stats assumption that porn viewing correlates with sex offenses. But really, the prospect of the government wagging a definitive finger over what material someone can and can't view - that seems like a dangerously slippery slope.

The Florida American Civil Liberties Union has actually been looking into the situation. Last week, they gave New Times the following statement.

The intention that the bill authors state they had in filing the legislation - the reduction of recidivism for former offenders - is an important one. But there hasn't been any evidence presented to suggest that this change to Florida law would support that important goal.  Also, by expanding the universe of banned materials to any material that could be 'sexually stimulating,' the bill would make the law vague and subject to inconsistent and abusive application. Reducing recidivism and ensuring public safety requires looking at genuine policy solutions based on facts, not fear.

But really, No Porn for Pervs is just the beginning. Since the Sun Sentinel's initial report, there's been a steady torrent of updates, each piece jacking up the political pressure for the state TO DO SOMETHING. Last week, legislators held hearings to air out new ideas. Although some of the responses seem like concrete steps toward improving the system, others are a little troubling.

For example, we can probably all agree that it would be a good idea to increase the supervision on all sex predators released from custody, or to expand who is evaluated under the state's Jimmy Ryce law, the provision that aims to identify the greatest public threats for civil commitment.

But the same panel also kicked around the idea of expanding the definition of sex offenders, but provided no specifics.

A 50 year minimum sentence is also on the table - sounds appealing, but can the criminal system handle it?

And most disturbing, there's the idea that prosecutors should be allowed to pursue civil commitment even when state psychologists don't think it's appropriate. That means giving the law-and-order arm of the state an override option when they don't agree with what medical professionals have to say.

At this point, these are all just ideas that haven't yet been workshopped into specific legislation. But as No Porn for Pervs shows, lawmakers are pulling the trigger quick on this stuff. We're in a heightened atmosphere of panic right now over sex offender issues, the exact hothouse conditions for cultivating some extremism-in-defense-is-no-vice policy which we might regret in cooler times.

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