NEW YORK: SEX OFFENDERS AND THE INTERNET
LUCKY SEVERSON: You might find Karen Menake staring through the screen door of her comfortable Long Island home as if she's expecting trouble. Although this hardly seems like a dangerous neighborhood.
KAREN MANAKE: In May, we found out that there was a sex offender living on our block. And we weren't informed by the police.
SEVERSON: The sex offender grew up in this neighborhood, and moved back in with his mom after serving time in jail. Like many neighbors here, Karen Manake was worried about her two daughters.
MS. MANAKE: And I was really upset, okay. And I didn't know what to do. So my neighbor called the advocate for Megan's Law, of Suffolk County, Laura Ahearn.
LAURA AHEARN: (Parents for Megan's Law): On phone: What's going on? Have you got a new court date?
SEVERSON: Laura Ahearn is a woman to be reckoned with - a social worker turned crusader determined to identify and stop sexual predators.
MS. AHEARN: In any case where a sexual offender is seriously, sexually assaulting, changing a child's life forever, there is no excuse...
SEVERSON: She founded a watchdog group, like many that have sprung up around the country, called Parents for Megan's Law.
SEVERSON: That's the law Congress passed after two brutal and highly publicized murders of little girls -- Polly Klass, by a convicted felon in California in 1993, and the rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994 by a twice-convicted pedophile. Megan's Law requires a state to notify communities when sex offenders move into a neighborhood. And now with the Internet, sex offenders' addresses, and sometimes their pictures are posted on Web sites around the country.
But state laws vary, and New York had not notified Karen Manake. She found out about the sex offender in her neighborhood from Laura Ahearn's Web site.
MS. AHEARN: Right now, we have about a thousand per hour visiting the site.
SEVERSON: The neighbors held a town meeting to discuss their unwelcome neighbor. They didn't know it, but he was there, listening in.
OFFENDER: One woman even asked how do we know if the person still looks the same way. You know they had my picture up on a screen and I was sitting in the back saying: Lady, you don't know I am here now.
SEVERSON: The 51 year old father was released after serving six months for deviant sexual intercourse with his 13-year-old daughter and sexually abusing his 16-year-old son.
OFFENDER: You know I thought my marriage was crumbling and I involved my children in my needs and it was totally wrong.
SEVERSON: Because he is considered a high-risk offender, his name will stay on the New York state registry for at least 10 years.
OFFENDER: I have already been punished by the courts. I am still being punished by the courts. Does society have the right to punish me too?
SEVERSON: Megan's Law supporters say sex crime sentences are too light. And that high-risk offenders cannot be rehabilitated. But there are an increasing number of critics who question the ethics and fairness of the law. They say sex offenders get punished twice and they are constantly harassed and driven underground to an environment where they are more likely to offend again.
OFFENDER: I'm worried that at some point, me job could be threatened from this if it gets out. The Web sites have my address and I do get a lot of cars driving by very slowly staring at me. It's like people driving by the Amityville Horror--Oh God that's the place.
FREEMAN LONGO (Therapist): The law feels good, it sounds good, but is it really doing the job it was supposed to do?
LONGO: For the majority of cases that I am seeing now, it has had devastating effects on their lives, and the lives of others.
SEVERSON: In Texas, you can find information about sexual offenders on Texas-sized billboards. And it's one of many states that now list registries on the Internet.
This 16 year old confessed to molesting his brother's three-year-old daughter.
TEEN OFFENDER: Since that day it felt like all my life has just gone down hill.
SEVERSON: He's on probation until he's 18. Then he'll be listed on the registry for 10 years after that.
TEEN OFFENDER: I have been trying to get my life together because of this and each time I think it is going right, somebody new finds out and confronts me about it. It has been real hard for me because of the Internet.
SEVERSON: A session with his therapist, Carlos Loredo, who has a number of clients in Austin, Texas, who are juvenile sex offenders.
DR. CARLOS LOREDO: Clearly he shouldn't have done that, clearly it hurt the child and his family. But that is real different from someone who have predatory-type history with a number of different victims of a number of years.
SEVERSON: Loredo says the boy has been fired from his job because of the registry, and like a lot of his clients harassed, and forced to move from their neighborhoods.
SEVERSON: Have you been harassed? Do you think that Laura Ahearn fits into that category?
OFFENDER: Oh definitely. My feeling is that what she is doing is a vigilante act. A vigilante is someone who thinks that the law hasn't done enough and they are going to take the laws into their own hands.
SEVERSON: He's right. Laura Ahearn does not think the law has done enough.
MS. AHEARN: We need to require that individuals that commit these kinds of crimes against children go to jail a longer period of time.
MS. MANAKE: I was devastated when I looked at that registry and saw that a lot of the people don't go to jail very long. And I felt that our government doesn't care about our children.
MS. AHEARN: So they are taking that outrage and directing that outrage toward offenders who are known (to have been) convicted and they see in situations like this one offender you interviewed, there was very little time that was actually served for that crime.
SEVERSON: If he murdered someone he wouldn't be on the registry.
MS. AHEARN: He would be in jail for the rest of his life, probably.
SEVERSON: Proponents of Megan's Law argue that sex offenders are more likely to offend again than other criminals.
MS. AHEARN: There is a much higher recidivism rate if you are looking at high-risk sex offenders.
SEVERSON: Critics say that's not true, at least for many juveniles.
LONGO: The data tell us that once apprehended and put into treatment, their chances for recidivism are tremendously low. Most of these kids will do well. And they emerge into adulthood relatively healthy and not sexually offending.
SEVERSON: Not all sex offenders are listed on registries, only those considered a risk to society. But the guidelines vary from state to state.
LONGO: There are cases where 12 year old kids and younger have been put on registries for one-time offenses, because it is a sex offense. If you will, a nuisance offense, like exposing oneself, as one often refers to those crimes, or window peeping or obscene phone calls.
SEVERSON: And research has shown that the greatest danger for kids is not the stranger.
LONGO: Eighty to ninety percent of children who are sexually abused are abused by people known to that child and often times, his family.
SEVERSON: If a man abuses his children, how does it make him predatory?
MS. AHEARN: His children have friends and his children'*s friends could be sleeping over in his home and he could be targeting those children. It is a serious risk and it is a realistic risk.
SEVERSON: Critics argue that the greatest danger of the registries is that they lull a community into feeling safe.
MS MANAKE: I was worried that if he didn't know that we were informed of his crime that he could do it to our children and our children could be hurt. But now that is publicized, we don't have to be afraid anymore.
OFFENDER: If I were of a mind to abuse neighborhood children, I just wouldn't do it in my neighborhood.
SEVERSON: Unfortunately there is no evidence, no studies yet, to prove that Karen Manake's neighborhood, or any neighborhood, is safer because of Megan's Law. But the neighbors feel safer and will resist any attempt to change the law. I'm Lucky Severson for RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY on Long Island.