"The media has seized onto particular cases that are particularly horrific, and that has created this image of sexual molesters that has been to the detriment of the treatment of sexual offenders," said Alisa Klein, the public policy director of STOP IT NOW!, an organization that is running pilot projects around the country to prevent child molestation.
Karl Hanson, a psychologist and senior research officer with the Department of the Solicitor General of Canada, said 17 percent of sex offenders will repeat their crime within four to five years — a smaller number than for other crimes.
With therapy or treatment — which ranges from "cognitive therapy" to change sex offenders' understanding of what they do to "chemical castration" to eliminate the physiological cause of the urge — that number drops to less than 10 percent, said Hanson, who is considered one of the leading experts in his field.
Some mental health workers say that imposing the death penalty on child molesters could cause more problems than it solves.
For people who hope to minimize the destructive effects of child abuse on the victims, who are often related to their attackers, the idea of hanging a death penalty over child molesters seems counterproductive. They say children would be less likely to come forward if they knew their assaulter — someone they might love — were facing capital punishment.
"If they think that Uncle Jack is going to be killed, they won't come forward," said Hanson. "That's not what they want. They want him to get treatment."
Another Option: Psychiatric Commitment
Public health officials who work with sexual predators wonder whether the laws would really have any positive effect on sex crimes against children, suggesting that imposing the death penalty for a sexual assault on a child might only encourage the attacker to kill the victim, eliminating the witness without risking a more serious penalty.
And many others are not convinced treatment works.
"I don't believe that there's any treatment that works for sex offenders," said Ed Wolahan, a corrections program specialist with the Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections. "That's my personal opinion."
A decade ago, some states began to move back toward the idea of locking up molesters and throwing away the key. First Washington and then Kansas passed so-called sexual predator laws, allowing offenders to be committed to mental institutions indefinitely — after they had served their prison term.
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Kansas law in 1992 because it provided for civil — not criminal — commitment, and since then other states have followed suit. Authorities in Wisconsin have constructed a 300-cell block for the civil commitment of sex offenders. The facility is within the state's penal system, but it is run by mental health practitioners.
"Other states are looking at the same thing," Wolahan said.
Does Anything Work?
There is still a strong push for treatment, though, and recently there has been extensive research on whether it works. But there is still no consensus, and the effectiveness of the various therapies used to treat child abusers is a matter of debate as well.
"Asking whether you can treat men who have sex with children is like asking whether you can treat drunk drivers," said Dr. Fred Berlin, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine assistant professor of psychiatry. "There's more than one answer."