New Bounds Put on Sex Offenders

By Ruth Sheehan
The News & Observer

December 1, 2008

Some worry that tighter restrictions taking effect today lack distinctions and divert focus

Neil Cagle was stocking shelves at the convenience store where he works in the western part of the state when a sheriff's deputy stopped by to tell him he wouldn't be allowed to go to church any longer.

Cagle, 61, is a registered sex offender. Under his sheriff's interpretation of stricter rules governing the state's 11,000-plus sex offenders that take effect today, Cagle can no longer attend Sunday service because his childhood church includes a small nursery.

"I started going to that church when I was 12," said Cagle, who served a four-year prison term for taking indecent liberties with a minor.

Cagle was released three years ago and said he is trying to do as the law requires.

"But every year they increase the things I can't do," Cagle said.

To many people, that's just the way it should be. But, as the state clamps down on sex offenders, most experts and at least one legislator warn that the tougher new law fails to distinguish between offenders who are most likely to offend again and those who are determined to live clean lives.

That places a burden on sheriffs, such as the one in Cagle's home county, who are required to monitor all offenders equally, the experts say. They also warn that the stricter mandates have the potential of allowing the worst offenders to commit their crimes without detection.

Passed by the legislature nearly unanimously and signed by the governor in late July, the sex offender law was the latest effort to bring the state's statutes into compliance with the federal Adam Walsh Act.

The new law triples the length of time many offenders remain on the state's sexual offenders registry to 30 years and requires offenders to register in person with their local sheriff's office within three business days of changing address. Starting today, the law also prohibits offenders from coming within 300 feet of any place where children might be expected to congregate.

Depending on a sheriff's interpretation, that means staying a football field's length away not just from the obvious -- day-care centers, schools and youth camps -- but also from churches, malls and McDonald's Playlands.

Cagle, who lives in an adults-only mobile home park, says he never fondled the teenage boy at the center of his case. But he ultimately pleaded guilty and served his time. He said he lost one job and nearly lost his current one after people raised concerns about his sex offender status. The law's new restrictions will only extend his isolation and paranoia, he said.

"Look, a murderer gets seven years and is out scot-free," Cagle said. "These laws are like telling a murderer, 'Well, no, you have to serve another seven years.' "

There is a common public perception that people who have committed a sexual offense can never be cured.

"And that they always recommit," said Jill Rosenblum, a Chapel Hill lawyer who became interested in the law after representing a man who committed a sexual offense as a teenager but hasn't been in trouble with the law since.

In reality, not all sexual offenders are alike, said Christi Hurt, a longtime rape crisis counselor. Some are on the registry for having consensual sex with a person under the age of 16. Others have sexually assaulted an adult.

Only a very small number -- 3.5 percent according to one federal study -- would be classified as sexual predators. Those are the ones who need the closest monitoring, Rosenblum said. But under the additional requirements of the new law, she worries they might not draw enough attention. That's because law enforcement will be so busy monitoring all offenders at a basic level that the worst offenders might quietly drop out of sight to abuse again.

Despite a college education, Rosenblum's client has had difficulty finding a job or a place to live because his name is on the registry. The law that takes effect today raises new questions about where he can legally go for something as simple as a cup of coffee.

Rosenblum has been working with Hurt to persuade state officials to craft sex offender restrictions that target the people most likely to re-offend.

"The problem is, the law treats all offenders equally," Hurt said.

Rosenblum and others think state money would be better spent expanding the Sexual Offender Accountability and Responsibility program at Harnett Correctional Institute. SOAR is an intensive program that trains inmates convicted of a sex offense -- and willing to admit their guilt -- to use new strategies for controlling their thoughts and behaviors.

The program has been praised for its low recidivism rate. But because it is so intensive, its scope is limited -- 56 inmates volunteer per year -- and its cost is high -- $335,000 annually.

Robert Carbo, director of SOAR, noted that psychologists who work with his population have increasingly keen tools to gauge which offenders are most likely to re-offend.

"The current law is one size fits all," he said. "When you do that, some of the high-risk offenders aren't getting enough attention, and some of the low-risk offenders are getting too much."

The tougher North Carolina law makes people feel better and wins the vote of politicians, but it doesn't offer more protection to children, said Grier Weeks, director of an organization called PROTECT, until recently located in Asheville, that lobbies for tougher predator laws at both the state and federal levels.

At a recent legislative study committee meeting on sexual offenders, Weeks reminded lawmakers that sexual abuse is far more likely to be committed by a person related to a child than some anonymous bogeyman.

"This is still very much a mom-and-pop industry," Weeks said.

Rep. Verla Insko of Orange County was the only lawmaker in either the House or Senate to vote against the new law last summer.

Insko, who holds a politically safe seat and has been criticized for her vote, said she understands the instinct to severely punish people who have committed an abhorrent crime.

However, she said, she hopes in the next session to get her legislative colleagues to consider the ramifications of the new law.

"We've cast the net too wide," she said.

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