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Murders ignite frenzied furor toward molesters

5-16-2005 Florida:

.Francesca Vittorio readily admits she lost her mind when she learned a sexual offender had moved into her quiet Palm Beach Gardens neighborhood. She stormed to his house a half-block away and pounded on his door. When told he wasn't home, she left her phone number. When he called, she didn't give him a chance to talk. "I told him if you ever look at my child the wrong way, you'll be dead. You won't live to talk about it," said Vittorio, who has a 12-year-old son and another who's grown.

Although several weeks have passed, her venom hasn't abated. "I'm hoping to God he gets so much harassment, he has to put his house on the market and move out," she said. "We don't give child molesters a second chance. They lost their rights when they took away a little child's rights. "He needs to go to a deserted island with the rest of the pedophiles and live there for the rest of his life," she continued. "I'm not a bleeding heart for these people." Vittorio is far from alone. [snip]

Fueled by outrage over the inexplicable tragedies, neighborhood associations have turned into vigilante groups. Handmade signs have been planted in sex offenders' yards, and fliers with their pictures on them have been plastered on trees, stop signs and telephone poles. [snip]

Unfortunately, in the furor over the killings, those who deal with sex offenders and even those who advocate for victims of sex abuse say an important fact has been lost: All sex offenders aren't John Couey. "There's a difference between a 25-year-old who exercised bad judgment and had a relationship with a 17-year-old and a 45-year-old man who had sex with a 5-year-old," said Jennifer Dritt, executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence. "You can't paint people with such a broad brush."

And, unfortunately, that's exactly what Florida has done, said Jill Levenson, a licensed psychologist who teaches at Lynn University and is a past president of the Florida Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. Aside from demonizing people who don't deserve to be treated like the latest reincarnation of notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy, the state is squandering limited resources that could be better spent tracking people who are serious threats or providing treatment to the thousands who could benefit from it, she said.

Further, she and others said, there is no evidence that the laws lawmakers have passed over the years in response to yet another unspeakable tragedy even work. "Despite spending millions and millions on community notification and monitoring, we've devoted very little money to research to find out whether these various measures reduce recidivism," said Philip Witt, a psychologist who treats sex offenders in New Jersey. But studies indicate that, at best, the laws do little to reduce sex crimes and, at worst, could exacerbate them.

"We're falling into this over-confident belief that all these punitive measures are doing something when actually they're having a negative effect," said Steve Sawyer, who runs a program for sex offenders in Minnesota. One of the main problems, Levenson said, is laws are often passed in the emotion-packed months after a gruesome murder when there is neither the time, ability or the inclination to fully understand the problem. : ..more.. by Jane Musgrave

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