Politics & Government

Senate panel considers sex offender bill

When a convicted sex offender from California moved 200 feet from Scarborough Elementary School last year, it upset an entire Olathe neighborhood.

Neighbors mobilized to get the man to move away and see that a similar situation didn't happen somewhere else.

The effort has made its way to the Statehouse, where Kansas lawmakers are considering a bill that would bar some sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or licensed day care. It also would mark their driver's licenses with the word "offender" — in different colors to show whether the victim was a child or adult — and bar offenders from school property.

The residency rule would apply to offenders whose victims were younger than 16.

A previous, similar proposal failed over objections from rural legislators who feared it would send sex offenders to their districts. The bill under discussion now is crafted to ease their concerns.

The offender near Scarborough "served as a spark to illuminate a problem that affects every neighborhood and every school and every child in Kansas," Michell Prothe of Olathe told a state Senate panel this week in Topeka.

In that case, the neighbors discovered that the man was supposed to be under the supervision of a probation officer in Kansas but was not, and eventually he had to move.

Senate Bill 39, which Olathe Republican Rob Olson introduced in the Legislature recently, is before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hearings will continue next week.

"I strongly believe this bill will correct some critical lapses in current state law which will give law enforcement the tools necessary to protect our children," Olson told the committee.

Some, however, have questioned the effectiveness of residency restrictions in stopping sex crimes against children.

Former Sen. Karin Brownlee of Olathe cited a 2006 report for the Ohio Sentencing Commission that found 93 percent of molestation victims were well known to their perpetrators.

An earlier Ohio study found that 89 percent of sex offenders had never been convicted before and that only 2.2 percent of child molesters were strangers to their victims.

"If they are first-time offenders, then a residency requirement wouldn't have stopped them," Brownlee said.

Leslie Ramirez, a leader in the Scarborough-area campaign, told the Senate committee that she was aware of these studies. But she said they often lump all sex offenders together rather than look at pedophiles.

She said other studies have found that sex offenders who target children choose to live near where potential victims gather.

Prothe said: "We do not believe these types of child sex offender laws provide a false sense of security as some have suggested."

She acknowledges that passing the legislation won't guarantee that children won't be sexually assaulted.

"But the chances will be decreased if we implement a healthy buffer zone between children, their parents and the people who have proven they harm innocent children," she said.

A bill prohibiting sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a school was proposed in 2007 but died when it was opposed by rural lawmakers. They feared that such a prohibition would prevent sex offenders from living just about anywhere in a city, forcing them into rural areas.

Larry Campbell, a former state lawmaker and current Olathe city council member, said that problem prompted a request to city planners to plot areas on a city map that were 2,000 feet from a school or licensed day care.

"It showed there were still plenty of places in the city where they could live," he said.

Donna Sibaai of Wichita told the committee that many states and cities surrounding Kansas have residency restrictions for child sex offenders. In Missouri, she said, offenders cannot live within 1,000 feet of a school or child care facility. She said Oklahoma imposes a 2,000-foot restriction.

"We need the legislation not only to help us protect our kids," she said, "we need it so we don't invite child sex offenders into our borders."