Sexual Predators: Throwing Away the Key

All too often the criminal justice system in this country strikes a poor balance between fair and equal treatment for the accused and the accuser. Nowhere is this gap more evident than in the handling of violent sexual predators. The case of Joseph Duncan, arrested in a restaurant in Idaho and charged with the kidnap and rape of the eight-year-old girl who accompanied him, is a perfect example of the system's failure.

Duncan has left a long, slimy trail of child sexual abuse behind him, yet he's remained free. It's hard to understand, particularly in light of Duncan's self-analysis. By his own estimate, he'd raped at least 13 boys, some at gunpoint, by age 16.

Then, in 1980, he was convicted of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy in Washington state and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Instead of locking him up, Duncan spent a couple of years in a psychiatric program designed to turn around sexual offenders. It didn't work. Tossed back in prison, he was released in 1994, only to violate his parole and be recommitted.

Now he's charged with nearly wiping out an entire family, allegedly killing Brenda Groene, her boyfriend Mark McKenzie, and her 13-year-old son, Shane, and abducting her two youngest children — Dylan and Shasta Groene.

Dylan, 9, and Shasta, 8, were repeatedly raped, then Duncan allegedly murdered Dylan. After someone recognized Shasta from news reports, the police were called, the child rescued and Duncan taken into custody. At the time of this particular arrest Duncan was wanted for sexually assaulting yet another little boy on a school playground.

That's not all. Since his apprehension, authorities say they have possible connections to at least three other murdered children and they're not through digging into Duncan's squalid past.

Putting the Joseph Duncans of this world where they can't harm additional children has long been a law enforcement priority. There's no greater satisfaction than removing a violent sexual predator from the streets.

But in most cases, it doesn't last. Until they finally kill a child — and amazingly, sometimes not even then — most child rapists will one day be back out, free to steal a child's innocence or even his or her life. It's time to tip the scales in favor of the kids.

Many jurisdictions have responded to this problem with their own initiatives. Tired of reading about children kidnapped, raped and killed by known pedophiles, towns in places like Florida and New Jersey have taken the unusual step of throwing an imaginary net around their schools.

The net — a "pedophile free zone" — creates a buffer between the schools and the surrounding neighborhoods, where pedophiles are forbidden to live. Civil libertarians may yip, but they'd better get used to it. Americans are fed up with a criminal justice system that's ineffective against this country's most salacious and disgusting criminals.

The National Sex Offender Registry (search) is also a good idea, but only a handful of states have signed on, reducing its value as a crime deterrent. A loose and often unrelated string of state sex offender registries make it easier for residents to see offenders who live in their communities, but information is often old or outdated and if a sex offender doesn't check-in it's also worthless.

Pedophiles (search) belong to a category of criminal that is rarely, if ever, cured by serving time. Although not all who are sexually attracted to children give in to the urge to molest, criminal behaviorists say they will always feel the desire. Reported recidivism rates among convicted pedophiles (search) vary wildly and depend on the criminal's preferences and how long he's been out of jail. Who besides Joseph Duncan really knows how many children he's violated or murdered?

The reason so many violent sexual predators rape again should come as no surprise: this is something that no combination of psychology or treatment fixes. Stemming the sexual desire for children isn't like quitting smoking. One doesn't slap a patch on one's shoulder to stifle the urge to carnally know a child.

Violent sexual predators should be treated the same as "three-strikes" offenders and given mandatory life sentences without parole — even on the first conviction. For those too squeamish to impose harsh criminal statutes, there are other options. Although it didn't help the Groene family, Washington state passed a civil law that provides for the continued confinement of violent sexual predators long after they've served their sentences. Upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001, several states have used Washington's statute as a model for their own laws.

The downside to continued confinement in any setting is that the government will have to accommodate more child sex offenders. I can live with that — in fact, I'll drop a check in the mail to my local Department of Corrections to help with their upkeep. I consider it a bargain.

The upside? People like Joseph Duncan who are convicted of these crimes once will never resurface in society again. No redemption through psychiatry, rehabilitation or behaving in prison.

Expensive — yes. But the payoff — children who might cross paths with monsters like Duncan spared the terrible fate of looking into their rapists' eyes — is worth the price. I don't think I'm alone in seeing this as a fair trade.

Just ask what's left of the Groene family.

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Carole Moore is a former police officer who served 12 years on the force before launching a career as a crime reporter. She has worked in newspapers, television and radio, including as a bureau chief for an ABC News affiliate, and has written extensively on criminal justice issues for a broad range of national and trade publications. She currently is a contributing editor to "Law Enforcement Technology" and writes the weekly online crime prevention column, "What Cops Know."