Where is Mikey when you need him?
By JULIE BROWN
A flock of sex offenders camping out in alleys, sleeping under bridges and hiding in places where police can't keep track of them.
A patchwork of inconsistent city, township and county laws carving out zones where sex offenders are not welcome.
And squeamish politicians petrified, afraid that if they try to craft a fix, their next attack ad will be a snapshot of them with their arms around a sexual predator.
It may all seem like Miami-Dade's quandary over what to do with the sex offenders living under the Julia Tuttle Causeway -- but it's not.
Iowa leaders faced nearly the same issues, but in April they settled things by doing something Florida hasn't found the political will to do: change its sexual-predator law.
This past spring, Iowa's state legislature -- with almost no dissent -- passed a new sex-offender law that superseded local ordinances and eased residency requirements for minor sex offenders.
The law ended the ban against some sex offenders living within 2,000 feet of a school or day-care center and created other zones where they are prohibited from lingering,visiting or working.
The new statute is less confusing, and while it's not perfect, it has been lauded by law enforcement, victims' rights advocates, the ACLU, prosecutors and legislators as a positive step.
Iowa offers a roadmap for Florida to break its political stalemate over how to deal with convicted sex offenders who have left prison.
FAULTS WITH LAW
The story in Iowa began in 2005 when the state legislature passed into law a strict measure prohibiting all sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day-care center. But it became problematic almost from the start.
Like Florida's law, it was written so broadly that even those who only gave a pornographic magazine to a minor were considered as dangerous as someone who raped a 9-year-old. In Iowa, both were classified as sex offenders and had to register and live outside the 2,000-foot zone. (Florida's law is 1,000 feet)
"We were just about the first state in the nation to pass a sex-offender law," said Randall Wilson, legal director for Iowa's ACLU. "It sounded good on paper to a lot of politicians. But after several years, everyone realized we made a terrible mistake."
Iowa state Sen. Jerry Behn said that legislators were nervous about changing the law at a time of media frenzy over child abductions and deadly sex crimes against children.
- And this is the whole issue, it's about saving their own personal jobs, and not looking soft on crime!
"Nobody wants a flier saying you are going soft on sex predators," Behn said.
But law enforcement prevailed by pointing out the problems with the law.
Police had a tough time enforcing it for several reasons: With no place to live, sexual offenders often absconded; police spent too much time trying to find them; and when they did find them, they couldn't register them because they had no residence.
Like South Florida, Des Moines had its share of sex offenders living under bridges, in alleys and on the streets.
William Melville, president of the Iowa Association of Chiefs of Police and Peace Officers and a Sioux City police sergeant, said that at one point the city had a map with all of the exclusionary zones circled on it.
"Someone would come up to us and ask, `Where's this little white area where I can go?' "
FIXING THE LAW
How did Iowa do it?
Legislators were prodded by some powerful forces -- all of whom lobbied hard for change.
With an election year on the horizon in 2010, the jittery lawmakers formed a committee that met in secret and crafted a law they felt the entire legislature -- and the public -- could live with.
Among other things, the law created three tiers whereby those who committed very minor sex crimes would be permitted to live near a school or other place where children could congregate. The very worst sex offenders still must adhere to the 2,000-foot ban and other strict rules.
"The law enforcement community was pretty united," said Ross Loder of the Iowa Department of Public Safety. "We are not nearly concerned about where the sex offender sleeps; we are really concerned about what they do when they are awake."
But in Florida, local and state government leaders continue to point fingers at each other and file lawsuits to find an answer.
Meanwhile, attempts by the Florida Legislature to fix the problem have run into opposition.
A bill that state Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, has pushed for several years would have streamlined the state's sex-offender residency rules, eliminating the hodgepodge of local ordinances.
The bill nearly passed in 2008 but was blocked by Miami-Dade legislators, who even made a failed attempt to have their county excluded from the bill's requirements.
Gov. Charlie Crist has refused to step in, saying it's a local matter.
Democratic state Sen. Dan Gelber, who is running for state attorney general, agrees that something needs to be done but says a lot more thoughtful policy must go into it.
"Florida has much more different challenges than Iowa," said Gelber, whose district includes the Julia Tuttle Causeway. "What we're not going to do is have statewide lower standards and open our neighborhoods because some professor says it's OK."
Gelber said he firmly believes that sex offenders are likely to continue to commit sex crimes. He favors some of the proposals being hammered out by Ron Book, chairman of Miami-Dade's Homeless Trust. Book is trying to find housing alternatives for the homeless sex offenders now living under the causeway.
- Well, his FEELINGS are not backed up by facts and statistics!
Book said Thursday that they are looking at several properties in South Miami, as well as the old North Dade Detention Center, where staff offices have previously been converted into living quarters.
- Ron Book is an idiot! Do you really think those coming out of prison will be okay with living at another detention center? Are you really this ignorant?
He conceded, however, that moving them is not the solution. "We don't need a Band-Aid; we need a longer-term solution. As more and more of these sexual predators exit the correctional system and there's less and less space, what do you do with the population?"
- Um, you let them get on with their lives and integrate back into society, maybe?
But Lode, of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, warns that the more people marginalize sexual predators, the more isolated they become from society -- and the more likely they are to recommit crimes.
Said Lode: "It takes political courage to step up and enact changes."
- You expect politicians to have courage and common sense? What a joke!
"The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of a civilization. We must have a desire to rehabilitate into the world of industry, all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment." - Winston Churchill (United States Constitution)