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How a Plano legislator’s remarks bred strict sex offender laws

Recent research has challenged long-held assumptions that convicted sex offenders are very likely to commit new sex crimes and questioned how those assumptions were reached in the first place. Prior to that, though, one Texas legislator’s words were particularly influential on sex offender laws across the country. (Italics added for clarity.)

July 1997: State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, a former schoolteacher and proponent of the state’s strict 1995 Ashley’s Laws for sex offenders, attends a conference in Bellevue, Wash., about sex offender registries. She begins her speech by noting that “putting the modern sex offender into the traditional criminal justice system is usually as successful as keeping a snake in a shoebox.”

EXCLUSIVE INVESTIGATION: Click here for the full sex offender registry investigation

Shapiro continues: “Sex offenders are a very unique type of criminal. I like to say they have three very unique characteristics: They are the least likely to be cured; they are the most likely to reoffend; and they prey on the most innocent members of our society.” She cites no evidence.

April 1998: Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics includes Shapiro’s presentation in a collection of wide-ranging presentations from the Washington conference. A disclaimer states: Contents of this document do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Bureau of Justice Statistics or the U.S. Department of Justice.”

November 2002: U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, appointed by Pres. George Bush in 2001, briefs the U.S. Supreme Court for a case, Smith v. Doe, in which Alaska was asking if two defendants convicted of sex offenses, imprisoned and released prior to the establishment of the registry now had to register.

In support, Olson writes: “Sex offenders exact a uniquely severe and unremitting toll on the Nation and its citizens for three basic reasons: ‘They are the least likely to be cured, they are the most likely to reoffend and they prey on the most innocent members of our society.’” He cites the “United States Dep’t of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics” paper.

March 2003: Writing for the court, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy upholds the Alaska men’s inclusion on the registry, arguing such public lists are reasonable measures to protect the public because of “grave concerns over the high rate of recidivism among convicted sex offenders and their dangerousness as a class.”

November 2003: A Bureau of Justice statistical analysis, tracking 270,000 criminals released from prison in 1994, finds 5.3 percent of sex offenders committed a new sex crime after release. The rate falls to 3.3 percent for those over the age of 45. “Compared to non-sex offenders released from State prison, sex offenders had a lower overall rearrest rate” for all crimes, the report concludes.

November 2006: California voters consider Proposition 83, a sweeping set of restrictions for sex offenders, including strict monitoring and a statewide ordinance prohibiting them from living within 2,000 feet of schools and other locations for children. It declares: “According to a 1998 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, sex offenders are the least likely to be cured and the most likely to reoffend, and they prey on the most innocent members of our society.”

It passes with 70 percent approval.

The California Supreme Court strikes down the law’s buffer-zone, finding in March 2015 that the restriction had contributed to homelessness among registered sex offenders. By then, the word-for-word statements from Shapiro’s speech, citing the Propoosition 83 language, have already been used in several local ordinances banning offenders from child-safe zones, including:

2006: Paso Robles, Calif.

September 2009: Sheboygan, Wis.

SOURCES: American-Statesman staff research; “Frightening and High,” Ira Mark Ellman, Arizona State University; “The Iconic Child Molester,” Tamara Rice Lave, University of California

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