Iowa lawmakers are considering extensive changes to the state’s sex offender laws to get the state into compliance with federal rules. As part of the re-write, some lawmakers want to scrap the restriction on where sex offenders live and instead, limit where they can go during the day.
Iowa has until July of 2010 to comply, or face losing $450,000 a year in drug and crime fighting grants. Ross Loder, the Department of Public Safety’s legislative liason, says there are other compelling reasons why Iowa should conform with the National Sex Offender Registry.
Loder says, "We potentially could face a situation where Iowa’s much more attractive to sex offenders who want to remain outside of a integrated national system. In fact, we know today, sex offenders do in fact jurisdiction shop." Iowa’s registry only includes the offender’s address and physical description.
If the state joins the national registry, offenders will also be required to report their place of employment, the kind of car they drive, and, if they’re a student, where they go to school. It does not include a residency requirement. In 2002, Iowa lawmakers voted to bar convicted sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or daycare.
Bremer County Sheriff Dewey Hildebrandt was once a staunch supporter of the restriction but now fears it’s forcing offenders into hiding.
Sheriff Hildebrandt says, "The current law, even in our particular county, has pushed people unable to find residency within communities out in our county parks where it’s a campground and, for Pete sake, children go to those campgrounds with their parents and pushing sex offenders into campgrounds to me is not an ideal solution."
Hildebrandt supports replacing the residency requirement with an anti-loitering provision. Legislation at the statehouse would prohibit an offender from hanging out within 300-feet of a school, daycare, park or swimming pool. Registered sex offenders could only attend school functions if given permission by school officials.
Representative Clel Baudler, a Republican from Greenfield, has been advocating for this change for three years, but says lawmakers have previously lacked the political courage to scrap the 2,000 foot rule.
Baudler says: "Absolutely, their fear of the postcards during the campaign, you know the radio ads, ‘You’re soft on sex offenders,’ ‘You attack our kids.’ This bill, if we can get it done, will be smarter and tougher on the perpetrators that are on the sex offender registry." While Baudler has the support of the state sheriffs and county attorneys associations, not everyone is ready to abandon Iowa’s 2000-foot rule.
Boone Community Schools superintendent Theron Schutte likes the idea of an anti-loitering law, but says it should be in addition to the residency requirement. "Anything that would put the school district or its occupants, whether it be students or staff, in a greater position of potential danger would be a bad move. From that standpoint, I think just opening the door to people on sex offender registry living wherever they want to around a school, I think that would be a bad move," Schutte says.
That view is why Senator Keith Krieman, a Democrat from Bloomfield, is searching for some middle ground. Krieman says it may be time to tweak the 2000-foot law so that it doesn’t apply in every case. He cites young offenders still living with parents or those who public safety has deemed a low risk to re-offend. Kreiman says even small changes will be politically charged — and more easily adopted in a non-election year.
Kreiman says, "I think the entire bill will need bi-partisan support and I think it’s more likely to happen this year than next because of those political concerns, and the fact that we are told by the federal government that we need to comply with the Adam Walsh bill."
While Iowa doesn’t have to change its 2,000-foot rule to comply with federal law, everyone involved says any rewrite of the state sex offender registry should include a debate of the residency requirement. It’s a discussion that law enforcement has been having for years but one that legislative leaders have tried to avoid.