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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 28, 2006

Shame on us"

Like it or not, convicted sex offenders are part of our society. More than 20,000 live in New York State and more than 300 live in Albany County.

Since 1996, when the state adopted a law requiring information about sex offenders be made public, our newspaper has published the names, addresses, and crimes of the sex offenders deemed most likely to re-offend when they have moved into the towns we cover — Guilderland, New Scotland, and the Hilltowns.

We believe that such information can offer protection.

Recently, we’ve run a series of articles about state court decisions and proposed legislation dealing with sex offenders. In November, New York’s highest court ruled that the current practice of committing some convicted sex offenders to mental-health facilities after they served their prison terms was inappropriate. Instead, the court ruled, the state should use the applicable criminal law to achieve the same end while also affording due process.

Earlier this month, Governor George Pataki, just before leaving office, tried to push through a bill that would allow the practice. The Senate and the Assembly were not able to iron out differences in their civil-commitment bills.

These decisions affect all of us — not just sex offenders and their victims and neighbors. They affect us as citizens and as taxpayers. Our reporter, Saranac Hale Spencer, interviewed politicians sponsoring the bills as well as mental-health and crime experts, police and victim advocates to give a well-rounded and informed view of the problem’s many facets.

Her final story ran last week. It was based on an interview with a convicted sex offender who told about his crime, his time in prison, and his life since being released from prison two years ago.

We were careful to run three paragraphs on the front page that would let readers know the topic of the story without describing any graphic details. The decision to turn to the inside for the rest of the story was then a matter of personal choice.

It is rare to see such a candid account. Our reporter worked hard to secure the interview. She heard a friend of the sex offender speak out months ago at a panel presented at Christ the King Church in Guilderland; he was concerned that the convicted sex offender was unable to get a job. Hale Spencer called the friend, got the offender’s name and secured an interview.

We were sickened by many of the sex offender’s views. A letter we received this week confuses our reporting on the story with our condoning the offender’s viewpoint. "Shame on you," says the letter-writer.

We feel no shame. Understanding all aspects of a thorny problem is not always easy or pleasant. But it is necessary if we, as a society, are to make informed decisions.

Last year, we interviewed a sex offender who had been living in Guilderland but, after his crime was publicized, he couldn’t find a job or a place to live. We interviewed him in a locked psychiatric ward. He had told attendants there that he would slit his throat in front of them if they didn’t take him in; he had no place else to go.

We’ve written before in this space that public safety is directly tied to treatment and we’ve written in detail about the state we believe has the most effective program — Texas. Rather than civilly committing sex offenders, Texas releases them to outpatient care and keeps close tabs on them, with twice the success rate of inpatient programs.

We’ve also pointed out that the majority of sex crimes are committed by first-time offenders and that many sex crimes are committed by people who were themselves once victims. Once a state adopts a civil-commitment law, more effective strategies for managing sex offenders in the community are no longer politically feasible.

Rather than spending billions of dollars to lock up so-called mental patients, we would be wiser to craft laws with a narrower definition of violent sexual offender; to provide treatment during incarceration and lengthen sentences if needed; to lengthen parole periods, making sure treatment is part of parole and penalties for parole violations are harsh; and to provide programs that will stop the vicious cycle. Legislation that focused on real solutions would better protect the public and children.

One positive result of last week’s story is a phone call we received from a New Scotland resident who informed us of a sex offender who moved into town several weeks ago. Details about him appear on our "Blotters and Dockets" page.

When we called the town’s supervisor this week, he said he didn’t know about it. Three years ago, after another sex offender had moved into town, we wrote in this space that New Scotland had not discussed or adopted a policy on dispensing information on sex offenders. We urged that New Scotland, and other municipalities in our coverage area, do so.

We renew our urging with more intensity: It is best to have thought out ahead a rational and fair way to handle such sensitive information.

The woman who called our news office this week was the mother of young children. She had legitimate concerns that people, like herself, were not being informed, so she turned to our paper. After all, the law that New York adopted in 1996 was modeled on one adopted earlier by New Jersey, frequently called Megan’s Law. Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old, was raped and murdered by a neighbor who had twice been convicted of sex crimes; her parents had no way of knowing this.

Locally, Guilderland was ahead of the curve. In 1996, the town appointed a Child Protection Task Force that studied the issue and made a recommendation to the town board. In 1997, the village of Altamont also developed a procedure.

While information can offer protection, it can also be misused.

We need to avoid hysteria and the abuses that often go along with it. We have a right to know about a sex offender living in our midst but we also have a responsibility to see that that person is not harassed or hurt.

The registry website maintained by the state’s Criminal Justice Department says that anyone using the information posted there to injure, harass, or commit a criminal act against any person may be subject to criminal prosecution.

Our job, as a newspaper, is to inform, as fully and frankly as we can. Your job, as a reader, as a citizen in a democratic society, is to use that information responsibly.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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