Senate Bills and Such

Senate Bill 500 has been a hot topic in the state, and already I’ve written three stories on it in my new job. It deals with parole and release from prison, and what supports the state should provide to people getting released.

SB 500 has exploded in recent weeks because of some of the people it will affect. One of them is a registered sex offender who was out on parole when he assaulted a 16 year old girl.

It’s an interesting discussion, particularly because when the words “sexual predator” come up emotions trump reason. I’ve been told privately by several people they’d like to see sex offenders thrown in jail for life, killed or sterilized. That’s a far cry from an early release with state support to reintroduce them into society.

I’m still looking for facts on this, not just figures, but the discussion really comes down to whether sex offenders are fundamentally different than other criminals, and if their rights under the law are therefore different. What should happen when a sex offender reaches the end of their sentence?

According to the state attorney general’s office, the research shows that criminals are most likely to re-offend in the first eight months after their release from prison. By that rational, it makes sense to give former inmates supports for that period. Now, that research doesn’t deal with sex offenders specifically, so in the Conway case that is still up for debate, but otherwise it seems a win for both those convicted and society as a whole: individuals get supports that keep them from re-offending, and society experiences fewer crimes.

But this breaks down about where victims enter the equation. For some people prison is about rehabilitation, but for others it’s about retribution. Some people are bound to look at nine months of freedom as nine months those people don’t deserve. And they aren’t wrong.

And, when it comes to sex offenders, those emotions are understandable even if you don’t agree.

But how should it be enshrined by the law? SB500 has two parts that trouble people: the 90 day limit on parole violations, and the nine month early release program with monitoring. The monitoring structure hasn’t been set up yet, and victims don’t want to see a violator going to prison for 90 days if they have committed a crime.

There seems to be a solution for both: set up the monitoring program, and differentiate between parole violations and criminal acts. The monitoring program will cost money in the short term, but over the long term it will save corrections dollars and provide benefits to both convicts and society. That makes sense, even if it costs now. And tweak the law so if a parole violation is as a result of a criminal act the 90 day limit does not apply. That would give victim’s families confidence they won’t be subjected to repeated run-ins with offenders every six months, but it sets up the guidelines to govern parole violations that SB500 was enacted to address.

But in an election year, where this has become debate for the partisans, discussion is hard to come by. I’ll be interested to see where this goes, and whether people backpedal from what is essentially a good law.

And no one disagrees on that. Even the law’s most ardent critic, who’s daughter was targeted by a registered sex offender, thinks the law has value. He is concerned about specifics, however, and rightly so. But it seems the debate over the law has been fueled by an imprecise reading (and imprecise characterizations in the media). There are several measures to roll it back that will go before the house and the senate this week. It will be interesting to see where they go, and to see how the debate evolves over time.

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