— Because of a paroled rapist, Gene Schmidt can only say hello to his daughter Stephanie when he visits her grave. So he was skeptical when another convicted sex offender, Michael Crane, was given a chance at redemption.
"When he was released, he told reporters, 'I'm anxious to get on with my life. I want a life and I want people to feel comfortable around me,'" said Schmidt, the victims' rights coordinator for the state of Kansas. "I just shook my head and thought to myself, 'He's a con man. They all are.' "
Sixteen months after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that led to his release, Crane was arrested again, after police said DNA linked him to the rape of a woman in a Kansas City, Mo., apartment complex. Schmidt wasn't surprised.
As Crane awaits his scheduled July 15 arraignment, his case has renewed the debate over how the criminal justice system should handle violent sex offenders. Some victims' rights advocates in various states are pushing for "one-strike, you're out" legislation that would impose life sentences without parole on convicted sex offenders — both first-time offenders and re-offenders.
"Cases like that [Crane's] are going to continue to happen," said Tracey Oetting, founder of Citizens For A One Strike and You're Out Law, a group that is petitioning for one-strike legislation in Washington state.
"What people fail to realize here is that by allowing these people to go free, we're helping breed a new generation of sex offenders," Oetting said. "Studies have shown that most sex offenders were victims themselves."
Not In My Back Yard
The drive for one-strike legislation in Washington began when the state's Department of Social and Health Services announced plans to build transitional housing facilities for sex offenders in various residential areas. But residents of those areas complained that they feared for their own — and their children's — safety. They did not want sex offenders living near their neighborhood.
Oetting argues that the housing facilities will cost taxpayers more money in the long term. On average, the housing and living expenses for each offender would be $365,000 a year, and more facilities would need to be built to accommodate more prisoners who would be released, she says. She believes it would be more economical to keep offenders imprisoned and that the harsher penalties would act as a deterrent to would-be offenders.
"I remember when three-strikes legislation first came up and people argued that our prisons would overflow," Oetting said. "But there's evidence that crimes that would fall under the one-strike category did go down after three strikes was signed into law. The sex offenders either knew about the law and left the state, committed other crimes or decided not to commit the crimes — but the crimes did go down."
Shutting the Door on Redemption
But critics maintain one-strike legislation would aggravate the problems of overcrowded prisons and would cost taxpayers more money, because they would be paying for more prisoners sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. In addition, these critics say, the legislation is too broad: It labels all sex offenders as beyond reform.
"The thing that bothers me is the notion that there is no opportunity for rehabilitation, no opportunity for a convicted person to re-enter the community and become a productive member of society," said defense attorney Steven Cron, who represented comedian Paula Poundstone in a sex abuse case. "Albeit, these are horrible crimes, and people need to be punished for them. But people also grow and should be allowed a chance at redemption."
Sex crimes, some argue, are seen as so heinous — especially if the victims are children — that the offenders are almost immediately stigmatized and labeled as predators, when in many cases they may suffer from a mental illness. And sex offenders, these critics say, do not enjoy the same rights as other convicts when they are released. They are never truly given a chance redeem themselves because they are ordered to register with local law enforcement and members of the community can find their names in sex offender databases.
Popular belief is that most sex offenders will attack other victims after being released from prison, but statistics indicate that is not true. Studies by the Bureau of Justice say just 2.5 percent of convicted rapists are arrested again for sexual assault within three years of release.
"To make such a broad-stroke statement — that all sex offenders are dangerous and need to be imprisoned for life — I'm not going to take that position," said Dr. Fred Berlin, associate professor of psychiatry and founder of the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins University. "There is no evidence that shows that most sex offenders will re-offend and attack other victims. There is nothing to support that."
What Is the Best Approach?
Since a convicted child molester raped and killed 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey in 1995, all 50 states have adopted versions of "Megan's law." These laws require convicted sex offenders to register their whereabouts with local law enforcement officials and enable residents to check databases to find out know whether any offenders are living in their neighborhood.
The law's weakness is that it relies on offenders to register voluntarily. Resource-strapped and overwhelmed law enforcement officials are often not able to verify the whereabouts of offenders, and thousands of released sex offenders are not registered in criminal databases.
Some say the problem in handling sex offenders is not necessarily legislative but with channeling resources.
"The problem with the criminal justice system is that it tends to over-prosecute a case," said John LaFond, law professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. "You see expensive solutions proposed that involve putting heavy burdens on an already overcrowded prison system. And some communities are bombarded with information [about sex offenders] that, quite frankly, doesn't do them a lot of good. I'm for keeping sex offenders convicted of serious, violent crimes in prison for long periods of time. But what you also need is a middle-of-the-road solution."
Upon release, LaFond said, offenders should be granted some freedom, but their activities should be closely monitored by case workers with expertise in sexual assaults. These workers would have a light case load and would monitor the offender to make sure he is abiding by restrictions. The restrictions placed on the offender would gradually lighten — or tighten — depending on how well he progresses and abides by the rules. However, the offender would always be closely monitored.
"It's a common-sense, middle-of-the road approach," LaFond said. "It's just a matter of figuring out how to best use your resources."
Crane’s Legal Luck
It's debatable whether LaFond's approach would have prevented Michael Crane's alleged attack on a Kansas City woman. His recent arrest frustrated Kansas law enforcement officials and victims' rights advocates who tried to prevent his release through "Stephanie's Law."
The law is named for Stephanie Schmidt, 19, who was raped and killed in 1993. Her attacker, Don Gideon, offered her a ride home from the restaurant where they both worked. Authorities had not notified Gideon's employer about his criminal record, and Stephanie did not know he had served time for rape.
Gideon is now serving a life sentence for Stephanie's murder.
After Stephanie was killed, her parents, Gene and Peggy Schmidt, helped get sex offender registry laws passed in Kansas and lobbied for the passage of Kansas' violent sex predator law. "Stephanie's Law" was designed to enable law enforcement officials to keep sex offenders in custody indefinitely, even after they served their sentences, to receive treatment.
Crane had served his time for a 1994 sex attack when prosecutors tried to have him confined indefinitely. They wanted him to receive treatment in a sex predator program until doctors determined he was no longer a threat. In 1998, a jury ruled that he was a violent sex offender and should be confined.
An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court followed, and the high court both upheld and struck down Kansas' sex predator law. In January 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement officials can hold sex offenders after they have completed their sentences — but only if they can prove that the prisoners cannot control themselves.
In Crane's case, the prosecution's own experts had determined he was no longer a threat to others. Crane was released shortly afterward.
A decade after his daughter's slaying, Gene Schmidt says the original intent of the sex predator law was to make sure that Crane and other sex offenders like him would always be closely monitored. But, he said, that didn't happen in Crane's case.
"We had originally done research on 'one strike, you're out' legislation," Schmidt said. "I suppose it could do some good … I tell you, though, the guy who killed Stephanie — he never should have been let out [in the first place]."
Crane now faces kidnapping, rape, misdemeanor assault and multiple sodomy charges in the Kansas City, Mo., case. If he is convicted, prosecutors say they will seek multiple life sentences.