Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Hurricane Katrina did more than scatter families to the four winds. About 15,000 child predators have also been displaced by the storm, and their whereabouts are now unknown. Congress should act quickly.

Since there are thousands of children still missing in wake of the storm, locating those predators is an especially high priority. Nationwide there are about 550,000 convicted sexual offenders out of jail, 100,000 of whom are unaccounted for. For this reason, the Children’s Safety Act, which the House passed last week, comes just in time. The Senate should give similar legislation speedy passage.

The House bill would make it easier for law enforcement to track sexual offenders and establish stiffer punishment for sexual crimes. Sexual offenders would be required to register prior to release from prison and to update their registries with the state in person every six months and make contact with authorities every month. The bill also improves coordination among states to track offenders that move. Offenders who fail to comply with registration requirements would face felony charges that could result in jail sentences of up to 20 years. The bill would also create a Web site with a national database on offenders, which would include background information, home addresses and phone numbers, and photographs of criminals convicted of violent sexual offenses or criminal offenses against a minor.

In addition, the registration system would be expanded to include any felony and misdemeanor sex offenses. Offenses against children would be expanded to include possession of child pornography, which would trigger registration and notification requirements. The legislation would also ensure mandatory minimum punishment for violent and sexual crimes against children. An electronic monitoring system for sex offenders would also be studied.

While the House bill is certainly welcome, it seems inexplicably overdue. Currently, there are no requirements for states to notify each other when a predator moves, and there is no uniform, nationwide notification system. Jessica Lunsford was abducted, tortured and murdered in Florida in April after her killer, a convicted offender, left Georgia without anyone’s knowledge. The case stirred national attention. Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast, shed additional light on the threat of sexual predators. The Senate should act swiftly to pass its get-tough version of the bill.

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