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Texas sex offenders in sight of rare policy win

Friday - 3/29/2013, 2:39pm  ET

Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Four convicted sex offenders huddled in a busy hallway at the Texas Capitol, congratulating each other for going public and testifying against a bill that would plaster their criminal past on their Facebook profiles.

As expected, not everyone was moved by their objections.

"I don't feel bad for the guys that came in here whining," Republican state Rep. Steve Toth said after the men had left the room at a recent House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee meeting. A Democrat switched on her microphone to voice on the record that she, too, had no sympathy.

In the Texas Legislature and statehouses nationwide, bills aimed at curbing how and where sex offenders can live and work are routine. But for the 72,000 registered sex offenders in Texas this year, there is optimism. A legislative victory is in sight, and it's not for sinking a fresh round of get-tougher proposals -- but scaling back one already in place.

Pushing forward what advocates say would mark a minor but extraordinary softening of the state's sex offender laws, the GOP-controlled Senate has passed a bill to remove employer information from Texas' online sex offender registry.

"I've been on that registry for 15 years and going on for a lifetime," said Hwi-Kee Wong, 34, who works in information technology and said he was arrested at 18 for copying illegal images. "I've never re-offended. I have no intention to re-offend."

It's not a change of swaying lawmakers but the wringing hands of frustrated business leaders -- they complain their bottom line suffers when the public discovers who's on the payroll.

The odd result: Sex offenders and Gov. Rick Perry's favorite conservative think tank is among those left seeing eye-to-eye. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, which backs business-friendly bills, argues the current registry comes between the private relationship between employer and employee.

"We've seen if it bleeds, it leads in news coverage for years," said Marc Levine, director of the foundation's Center for Effective Justice. "Obviously, people may be able to make money by doing a news report, 'We went to a McDonald's and there was a sex offender serving as a cashier' or something. It may be salacious, but what's the public interest?"

Mary Sue Molnar, executive director of Texas Voices for Reason and Justice and the mother of a registered sex offender, said the bill is only the second her group has endorsed since forming in 2007.

Hers and a small band of similar organizations typically play defense in statehouses, arguing that decades of stacking one restriction atop another has pushed sex offenders to society's fringes. They say the result is growing ranks of unemployable and homeless outcasts, who then become more likely to commit new crimes.

"(Texas) would have every right to crow, jump up and down, dance jigs -- whatever," said Brenda Jones, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Reform Sex Offender Laws Inc. "It would be a huge win. It's very difficult to do."

Pressure on lawmakers to step up restrictions began intensified in 2005 when 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford of Florida was sexually assaulted and killed by a sex offender, according to a 2006 report by Texas House researchers. States began enacting sweeping "Jessica's Laws" that generally included mandatory minimum sentences and prohibiting sex offenders from living with 2,000 feet of schools and playgrounds.

Rules were being put in place prior to that. In 2001, for example, a Texas judge ordered sex offenders to place conspicuous signs in their front yards announcing their convictions to neighbors. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that sex offender registries are not punitive, though an Indiana federal appeals court this month did uphold the rights of sex offenders to have social media accounts.

And states -- Texas included-- continue to roll out new legislation to more closely track sex offenders and restrict what they can and cannot do. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder this month signed a new law expanding the state's public sex offender registry to include a wider range of crimes involving minors. In Arkansas, a proposal would keep sex offenders whose victim was under 18 on the registry for life, whereas now they can petition for removal after 15 years.

About a dozen bills in the Texas Legislature this session would create new restrictions, including one reinforcing the authority of cities to keep sex offenders away from playgrounds and swimming pools.

In all, it's a reality check that keeps groups stopping short of predicting that wiping employer information off the registry will lead to a wave of other rollbacks.

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