Reactionary measures 

Legislature considers sex offender crackdown

“I wish I still had the luxury I did in 1982,” says Andy Hudak, eating his lunch at the Buffalo Café in Whitefish.

Back then, Hudak worked in Whitefish as a counselor for victims of sex crimes. But that year, an acquaintance suggested he look into providing treatment for sex offenders.

“I thought, ‘Those are the bad guys. I work with the good guys.’” Hudak believed most sex offenders were untreatable.

His thoughts then were in line with the attitude toward sex offenders currently being pushed in the media, an attitude that could affect Montana law this term.

Currently there are six proposed bills dealing with sex offenders making the rounds in Helena. Most would enact elements of “Jessica’s Law,” named after Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old Florida girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 2005, allegedly by a man previously convicted of a sex offense. Specifically, the proposed Montana laws would mandate a minimum sentence of 25 years for anyone 18 or older convicted of a sex offense against a victim 12 or younger. The offenders would remain on probation for life.

Other laws would bar convicted sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of preschools, elementary schools, high schools, licensed day-care centers, churches and parks.

Jessica’s father, Mark Lunsford, is expected to speak at the Capitol this month in support of the bills. Jessica’s Law has received heavy support from Fox’s Sean Hannity, as well as CNN’s Nancy Grace. But Fox’s Bill O’Reilly has probably given Jessica’s Law the most support. On his website, there is a map of the United States showing which states have passed Jessica’s Law, which haven’t, and which are “heading in the wrong direction.”

Montana is still listed under that third category. O’Reilly has lashed out at critics of the law, once saying, “[L]eft-wing opposition to drastic punishment for child molesters is misguided. As we’re seeing in Vermont, the so-called rights of child rapists are overriding society’s obligation to punish heinous crimes.” Such media pronouncements, Hudak says, have fomented public “hysteria” over sex crimes by representing the very worst sex offenders as the rule, and creating an atmosphere in which opposition to Jessica’s Law is seen as coddling child molesters.

Hudak says he might still be on the same page as O’Reilly, had his friend, back in 1982, not gotten him to look into sex offender treatment programs. What he learned prompted him to start a Whitefish sex offender treatment practice in 1984, the Northwest Family Recovery Program. He also co-founded the Montana Sex Offender Treatment Association in 1987.

Hudak says he learned that rehabilitating sex offenders, instead of just jailing them, helps protect the public, because most offenders have also been victims, and rehabilitation breaks that cycle.

And treatment programs, he says, hardly coddle sex offenders.

“This isn’t your California ‘Oh, you poor baby, you’ve had a bad childhood’ therapy,” Hudak says.

According to Hudak, offenders in rehab are polygraphed each week on tough questions, such as their most shameful sex fantasies, or whether they’ve had inappropriate contact that violates their parole.

Sex offender therapists are able to turn their clients in to parole officers if they have any concerns about a re-offense. Their family members and friends are trained to supervise them for any sign of relapse.

In Montana, offenders are required to attend three to three and a half years of this therapy.

The result, Hudak says, is that Montana has a less than 1 percent recidivism rate among sex offenders who have gone through treatment. Hudak himself says he does not know of any re-offenders that have gone through his program.

“Montana has a system that, if the public understood it, they’d be proud of,” Hudak says.

And given that Montana’s treatment programs have proven so effective, Hudak doesn’t see any reason to support Jessica’s Law. Instead, he sees reasons to oppose it.

He says that a law mandating 25-year sentences would likely push sex crimes “back underground.” To make this point, Hudak gets personal.

“I’m a victim,” he says, explaining that he was molested by a relative when he was about 8 years old.

If there were a law saying his relative would have gone to prison for 25 years, Hudak says, “I would have never told. And I would have never recovered.”

Likewise, he says, even if a child were to tell an adult family member about sex offenses being committed by someone else in the family, the adults might well decide to try to handle the problem themselves, rather than risk having a relative sent away for 25 years.

As for the 1,000-foot rule, Hudak says there’s no evidence that this particular distance acts as any sort of barrier to sex offenders, and notes that 90 percent of sex offenders target family members, not random children at parks or churches.

He points to unintended consequences of distance rules in Iowa. That state banned offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools, churches, parks, etc. There, law enforcement officials are asking for the law’s repeal due to the man-hours it takes to enforce, the number of offenders who have gone underground in response, and the fact that it has made no demonstrable difference in the number of sex offense crimes committed there.

Sen. David Wanzenried of Missoula is also aware of the Iowa example, and the information has made him skeptical of Montana’s march toward Jessica’s Law.

He says no one has presented him with information showing such laws to be effective.

“We ought to be looking at whether this is helping in other states,” he says, so legislators don’t just pass a “feel-good bill” that doesn’t accomplish anything.

Montana Sen. Gary Perry, who is sponsoring a bill requiring a 25-year minimum sentence for child sex offenders, acknowledges that there isn’t much information on the effectiveness of the Jessica’s Law provisions. But he says that’s because the laws have only been in place since about 2005.

Perry says he sponsored the bill, in part, because, “These offenders tend not to be rehabilitateable.”

When reminded that, in Montana, less than 1 percent of offenders who complete treatment re-offend, Perry resonded, “We’re talking about the other 1 percent. These are the most violent and heinous of crimes.”

In the meantime, Wanzenried notes that the sex offender bills are politically easy for legislators to support, and that he may well be demonized for questioning them. He even begins his interview by saying, “Obviously, we want to protect the children first and foremost,” as if that were even in question.

But more to the point is Wanzenried’s conclusion: “We need to go into this with eyes wide open, ready to ask the hard questions.”

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