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Preying on Predators?

In the wake of vigilante murders, sex-offender registries have come under fire; a Richmond man dodges a flying rock.

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There was no need to call the police to report the incident, he says.

"For what? Why? Who gives a crap about sex offenders," he says. "My life has been hell because of all of this."

Leonard isn't his real name. The Richmond man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is one of more than 450 metro-area sex offenders whose address, picture and criminal record are posted on Virginia's online sex-offender registry.

Leonard was convicted of taking indecent liberties with children and aggravated sexual battery. But now, because of the registry, he says he's become the victim — of constant media harassment and "vigilante" attacks. Hence the recent rock incident. The two rock hurlers emerged as Leonard had pulled into his driveway.

"I feel victimized," he says, adding that the registry has become a kind of scarlet letter that's cost him his job, friends and his freedom. "I can never get a decent job," he says. "I'll always be alone."

But he's not alone in thinking that the registry might violate his freedom.

Virginia's American Civil Liberties Union chapter also opposes the registry, arguing that it is counterproductive as a deterrent to crime.

"The fact that it's so publicly accessible makes sexual offenders less likely to register," Virginia ACLU Director Kent Willis says. "If the sex offender registry ultimately drives them underground, then it's doing more harm than good."

Those listed on the registry have a hard time finding jobs and homes, Willis says, and it also makes them vulnerable to vigilante-style physical attacks.

Earlier this month, sex-offender registries came under national scrutiny after two convicted sex offenders in Maine were brutally murdered in their homes. The killer, Canadian Stephen Marshall, 20, allegedly targeted the men after finding their addresses on the state's online registry. After Marshall killed himself on a bus as police approached, authorities found the addresses of 34 sex offenders on his laptop computer.

The murders, however, didn't fuel a national call to rethink sex registries. And last week, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine signed legislation that would increase public exposure of sex offenders and more closely monitor their activities and whereabouts. Joined by Attorney General Robert McDonnell, the governor signed a new law creating the Office of Sexually Violent Predator Services to monitor offenders and update the online registry to ensure that all offenders have pictures and addresses posted.

Legislation also increased sentences for sex offenders, including a mandatory 25 years to life for a first offense of rape, forcible sodomy and other sexual acts against a child younger than 13. Second-time offenders receive mandatory life sentences.

"These new tools will help our police and prosecutors track, treat and punish those who pose a threat to our children," Kaine says.

Willis says getting tough on sex offenders makes good political sound bites, but it often leads to bad public policy.

"The problem with it is most of the laws dealing with sex offenders are largely based on fear and political answers unsubstantiated by research," he says.

Since the sex offender Web site was launched Dec. 29, 1998, Willis says the Virginia ACLU has received calls from people complaining that they have been exposed to harassment at home and in the workplace. Since its launch, the Web site has logged more than 71 million hits.

"When you are convicted of a crime you lose some civil liberties," McDonnell says of the registry. "That's just one of the risks people take when they break the law."

Leonard still calls the registry hypocritical.

"It's a quick fix — a politician's trick," he says. "I think it's good that people know who's living in their neighborhood, but it's hypocritically applied."

Leonard says he'd like other criminals to get similar treatment.

"I'd like to know about the drunk driver who runs through bus stops," he says. "If you are going to put sex offenders on there, why not put the drug offenders down the street. ... If you're going to do it for one, you've got to do it for all."

The governor's legislation will not take effect until July. Leonard, however, says politicians have simply slapped a Band-Aid on a greater problem.

"I'm not a monster," Leonard says. S

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