The North Carolina Senate unanimously passed a bill Thursday that would ban certain convicted sex offenders who pose a threat to children from going to places where children are, or would be expected to be present.
House Bill 1021 was filed as a stopgap measure to shore up the state’s current law banning sex offenders from certain places while a court case over the law’s constitutionality is decided.
The Jessica Lunsford Act, passed in 2009, banned sex offenders from a number of places but was ruled in part unconstitutional after several sex offenders challenged the law with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
A federal judge ruled one part of the law was too vague and another section might be overbroad. House Bill 1021 proposes changes in the law to fix those problems.
“There is nothing more important than keeping our children safe and out of the reach of dangerous sex offenders and child abusers,” Sen. Buck Newton (R-Johnston) said. “If this bill protects even one child, it will be well worth it.”
HB1021 would ban sex offenders who have been found guilty of a certain set of state offenses, or similar federal or out-of-state offenses, from “any place where minors frequently congregate, including, but not limited to, libraries, arcades, amusement parks, recreation parks, and swimming pools, when minors are present.”
That is more specific than the law’s current language, which “bans sex offenders from any place where minors gather for regularly scheduled educational, recreational, or social programs.”
The bill would also bar sex offenders from going on the State Fairgrounds during the State Fair each year, as well as the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center grounds, during the North Carolina Mountain State Fair, and on any other fairgrounds during the period of time that an agricultural fair is being conducted.
Previously the bill included only the State Fair but an amendment to the bill offered by Newton on the floor added the additional provisions.
Currently sex offenders are banned from “any place intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors, including, but not limited to, schools, children’s museums, child care centers, nurseries, and playgrounds” as well as from coming within 300 feet of any location intended primarily for the “use, care, or supervision of minors when the place is located on premises that are not intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors.”
This would include, for example, a childcare facility in a strip mall.
The bill would add a qualifier to the requirement that sex offenders not travel within 300 feet of any location “intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors when the place is located on premises that are not intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors, including, but not limited to, [schools, children’s museums, child care centers, nurseries, and playgrounds] that are located in malls, shopping centers, or other property open to the general public.”
Under the bill, only sex offenders whose crime was covered under Article 7B of the state penal code who were ruled a threat to minors in criminal or civil court proceedings, or whose victim was under 18, would be covered under the 300-foot rule.
Previously all sex offenders whose victim was under 16 years old or were guilty of an Article 7B offense fell under all of the limitations in the law.
The change is meant to make the law more narrowly focused, in line with the court’s direction.
The law leaves room for sex offenders who are parents to travel wherever they need to for emergency medical aid for their children.
Under the bill, it would become effective in September and would automatically be dissolved if the court ruled in favor of the state.
Joe Polich, staff attorney at the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NC CASA), said that his organization supports victim protection as well as treatment for sex offenders and that improved clarity may improve offender access to treatment as well as protecting victims, but the law’s potential impact is unclear.
“It’s hard to know right now, I think,” Polich said. “I think that clarity in the law is good, I think increased enforcement of the law is good and that seems to be what is attempted to be achieved here. Anything that is centered on reducing the recidivism rate and safety to the community is good. They are trying to make [the law] constitutionally enforceable and clear, and if the clarity and enforceability allows [sex offenders] to seek treatment, then that is good.”
Polich said that the offender registry is one tool in the toolbox for dealing with the problem of sexual assault, and that there is a wide variety of cases.
Polich said that the majority of attacks are by acquaintances, friends of friends, or other people known to the victim, and that community education is a huge part in prevention of attacks.
He said that there is an idea that sex offenders are strangers and predators lurking behind bushes to jump out and victimize people, but in practice that is not the largest source of sexual crimes, though of course it is a real risk.
“We sort of think that the registry and GPS monitoring is a tool in the toolbox,” he said. Polich said that NC CASA supports more education about how attacks happen as well as risk assessments for each offender to assess their danger to others and the best way to treat them.
“So we just push a comprehensive approach and an approach that is tailored to each offender. There is always the balance between what’s written in the law and what happens on the ground is vast,” he said. “We think an approach that uses these tools as a tool in a larger toolbox is good.”