State seeks to balance safety, offenders' rights

08/31/2009 12:00 AM

08/31/2009 6:38 AM

From an editorial published Aug. 26 in the Greensboro News & Record:

State legislators are still working to get it right regarding restrictions on registered sex offenders.

They have a lot to do.

An example in a bill considered during this year's General Assembly session illustrates the difficulty. It would bar offenders from being “on the premises of a movie theater that is showing a ‘G' rated or ‘PG' rated movie.” So registered sex offenders should attend only movies whose content includes sexually suggestive or even explicit material? That's a bad idea.

The bill in question, “Sex Offender Registry Changes,” was approved by the House but didn't get a hearing in the Senate. It will carry over to next year's session.

It actually contains some improvements from current law, particularly a provision that would allow registered offenders to attend religious services under certain conditions.

That would address the dilemma experienced by James David Nichols, a 31-year-old Sanford man who was arrested by Chatham County deputies for going to church, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported. Nichols had told the pastor of Moncure Baptist Church of his status and had permission to attend but violated the law, which prohibits registered offenders from being within 300 feet of a nursery. Most churches have nurseries where children stay during worship services, making them off limits to offenders.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is supporting Nichols in challenging the law. He claims his religious freedom has been taken.

Sex offenders should expect to lose some rights. Nichols is a repeat offender who spent six years in prison for attempted second-degree rape and indecent liberties with a teenage girl. He couldn't go to the church of his choice during those six years, either.

But a proposed revision makes sense. An offender could go to a place of worship with written permission of the religious leaders provided he stay away from the precise location of the facility for children. If enacted, this change would allow limited freedom but more importantly, perhaps, an opportunity for redemption.

It's necessary to protect children from dangerous offenders, but the most threatening predators should either serve much longer prison sentences or remain under very close supervision, including electronic monitoring. Offenders who are released into society should be allowed to participate in some normal, healthy activities, such as going to church.

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