The Problems With Sen. Lisa Boscola’s Inky Op-Ed on Kidnapping

Nobody ever wants to look like they’re on the side of sex offenders, but there’s something kind of misleading—though, probably, very well-intentioned—about State Sen. Lisa Boscola’s op-ed in the Inquirer today, proposing a new law to restrict where sex offenders can live.

Boscola starts on solid ground, by discussing the case of Harold Leroy Herr. He is a registered sex offender who served time for raping and abducting a 5-year-old girl in 1989. On July 11, it is now alleged, he kidnapped a Lancaster County girl from her front yard. Luckily, the girl was rescued by teen boys who pursued Herr’s car on bicycle until she was let out.

It’s an incident that would rouse the anger of any community, but Boscola overplays her hand in today’s op-ed:

According to national statistics, thousands of children are abducted annually. While it is not my intent to alarm people by citing these numbers, these statistics speak volumes about the exposure and vulnerability of children in our society.

But they don’t really speak to the vulnerability of children to registered sex offenders. Yes, thousands of children are abducted every year. Few of them, though, are abducted by registered sex offenders. In fact, the FBI reports that 200,000 children a year are abducted by family members. Registered sex offenders, the agency says, “are a minimal part of the problem. In FY 2009, an RSO was the abductor in 2 percent of child abduction cases; in FY 2010, this figure dropped to 1 percent.”

Clearly, in the case of Harold Leroy Herr, that doesn’t mean “zero” percent. But it’s also not at all clear that Boscola’s legislation would’ve prevented this month’s horrifying incident. The bill would prevent registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, preschool, day-care facility, or public playground, or within 500 feet of a school bus stop.

“This legislation, while no magic bullet, accomplishes something that is extremely important: It limits opportunity,” Boscola wrote.

Maybe not. If Lancaster Online’s description of the crime is accurate, Herr lived nearly 7 miles away from his latest victim. Being forced to live far from where children congregate doesn’t do anything to stop a man from getting in his car and driving to where the opportunity is.

And Boscola’s op-ed doesn’t mention a potential downside of her proposal: It so limits where sex offenders can live that states that have adopted similar restrictions have often created “sex offender ghettos,” which, of course, creates its own dangers.

A better way to confront the danger? Probably enforcing existing law. While Herr is a registered sex offender, he hadn’t registered in his latest address. After the kidnapping, Lancaster law officials started monitoring offenders more closely—and arrested a few who weren’t in compliance with the law. Such efforts are time-consuming and expensive, but they’re probably also more effective than what Boscola proposes.

Again, she’s well-intentioned. But she uses a faulty rationale (“thousands” of kidnappings) to propose legislation that doesn’t address the facts of Herr’s case. I’m old enough to remember the 1980s child-molestation-kidnapping scares that turned out to be way, way overblown, resulting in lots of bad policies and ruining a few lives in the process. If we’re going to pass new laws, let’s do it for the right reasons, and target them so that they’re most effective.