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Offender registry fills a need for protection

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More than 200 years have passed since Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote "The Scarlet Letter," a novel about a woman in the 17th century who was convicted of adultery and forced to wear the letter "A" as an everlasting symbol of her crime.

So the concept is hardly new. State lawmakers may not be fans of Hawthorne, but they have decided to paint red letters of a kind on all sexual abusers, posting their names and addresses on the Internet for all to see, even after their prison terms are completed.This new requirement is causing its share of controversy. Some people think the scarlet letter should disappear after an abuser has served a prison term. After all, the debt has been paid. But we're not talking about a crime between consenting adults here, and that makes all the difference.

Hawthorne's scarlet letter was a form of punishment for the offenders. The state of Utah's registry is a form of protection for the most vulnerable of all citizens - children. Regardless of what detractors say, it is a valuable tool.

The Utah registry works like this. Convicted sex offenders, for the first 10 years after they are released from prison, must register with the Department of Corrections annually and within 10 days of a change of address. Their names, addresses and physical descriptions are posted at www.cr.ex.ut.us.state/

soreg/home.htm. Anyone with a computer can reach this site and enter a ZIP code to get a listing of all convicted sex offenders in that area. I did and found three of them in my ZIP code. None of them, thankfully, lives in my immediate vicinity.

Not surprisingly, convicted sex offenders and their families don't like this. They view it as unfair punishment. The wife of one of them was quoted last week as saying she had looked forward to starting a new life with her husband after his release from prison. Instead, she now looks forward to a life of eternal punishment from neighbors who would rather not have them around.

She has some reason for concern. In some isolated incidents in other states, convicted sex abusers have been harassed or treated violently. In some cases, innocent people have been attacked in cases of mistaken identities.

Those attacks are deplorable, but don't be too quick to reach for a Kleenex and bemoan the fate of these people. Remember, this is a form of protection, not punishment. Focus instead on the victims and the potential victims. When discussions take this turn, the arguments tend to get a little thick. Let me help you through the underbrush.

First of all, let's confine the discussion to pedophilia, the most repugnant of all sexual crimes. People who oppose Utah's law note that most pedophiles (about 67 percent) victimize people in their own families or others whom they know well. A registry, some argue, does nothing to protect neighbors because those people aren't likely victims.

But here are some other facts compiled by psychologists and other officials at the Maryland Division of Correction: The average incarcerated pedophile is arrested for only one of every 30 crimes committed. Somewhere between 4 percent and 6 percent of all pedophiles are sadists, and these are the ones who sometimes end up as serial killers.

Here's the scary part. These same experts say pedophilia is a sexual orientation whose causes are not known. That's why most of them believe it is extremely difficult to find a cure, and there is little evidence that prison treatment programs work. Pedophiles may pay their debt to society, but they don't lose the urge to rack up more debts. Everyone convicted of this crime is worth watching closely after being released back into society.

And, for some reason, incidents of pedophilia are growing at an alarming rate. In the late 1980s, the number of convicted abusers rose by 48 percent. Today, nearly 44,000 people are serving time for this crime in state prisons nationwide.

True, parents ought to be as concerned about the abusers who never got caught as they are about those who are listed on the Internet. No one should think the registry is a guide to avoiding all potential trouble. But why would the state not want to arm citizens with at least some knowledge?

Utah's law is tame compared with some others. In many states, the law requires corrections officials to automatically notify neighbors when a sex abuser moves in. In Utah, the registry works only for people who are curious enough to search it.

That makes the law fairly benign. It is hardly an imposition on ex-cons and their families. Imagine if, in Hawthorne's book, the characters had to ask to see the scarlet A before knowing whether someone had committed adultery. The plot would have fallen flat - about as flat as the arguments against Utah's online registry.