A Benewah County man considered a pedophile is about to be released from prison and sent quietly back into the community.
According to Idaho law, sheriff’s deputies cannot warn residents he is coming - not even if they ask.
“He’s just one that we’re going to have to keep our eye on forever,” said Undersheriff Jeanne Miller.
In Washington and five other states, such crimes against small children would make the man, who is in his 50s, eligible for indefinite civil confinement as a sexual predator.
Also in Washington, information about sex offenders considered the highest risk to re-offend is distributed to neighbors, school officials and the media upon the offender’s release from prison.
Attorney General Al Lance will propose legislation this year that would allow authorities to begin doing both in Idaho.
Many of those in the Panhandle legal community embrace Lance’s proposal to allow authorities to notify residents when a convicted sex offender moves into their neighborhood. But his suggestion of civil confinement is receiving a mixed reaction.
“That’s real scary to keep a person locked up indefinitely on a prediction by one or two individuals,” said John Adams, Kootenai County’s chief public defender. “If you can do it for sexual offenders, for which I have no respect or sympathy, where does it stop?”
Under civil confinement, the state declares that the offender has a “mental abnormality,” in the words of a Kansas law that was upheld recently by the U.S. Supreme Court. The state then can confine the offender indefinitely for treatment. If the treatment succeeds and the “patient” is cured, he can be released.
Lance estimates about four or five Idaho convicts a year who now are released after completing their sentences would be candidates for confinement under a new law.
Capt. Carl Bergh, who heads the Coeur d’Alene Police Department’s investigative division, refused to cite specific cases, but said, “Over the last 25 years there have been some cases that if civil confinement was available there have been some that certainly would have been considered.”
Currently home to 231 registered sex offenders, the Panhandle has become a “haven of convicted sex offenders,” said Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas.
In 1993, Idaho began requiring convicted sex offenders to register with the local sheriff’s department within five days after their address changes.
Now, say many in legal circles, the time has come to use that information to raise the level of awareness in the community. Parents and school officials have a right to know if their neighbor has been convicted of a sex crime, they said.
“We have nothing right now that comes remotely close to protecting our citizens when a dangerous predator moves here,” Douglas said.
A convicted sex offender who moved from Spokane to Post Falls after getting out of prison in Washington earlier this year is one of several who cross the state line to dodge that state’s public notification law, Douglas said.
Authorities in Spokane, who thought the man was living there, caught the man when his Post Falls landlord saw his name listed on television as a Washington sex offender and called Kootenai County authorities.
“She says, ‘Wait a minute, I just rented him an apartment and there’s little kids living there,”’ Douglas said.
Without the Washington notification, the Post Falls landlord never would have known. Sex offender registration information is available to Idaho residents and school officials only through the state Bureau of Criminal Identification in Boise. To make a request, residents need a person’s name and date of birth or name and Social Security number.
“We do have people come in and say, ‘This guy is weird. Has he been arrested?”’ said Shoshone County sheriff’s Capt. Spike Angle. “We can’t say a thing.”
In Benewah County, Miller would like to warn residents about a man who has been convicted of two counts of lewd conduct.
“This man is in his 50s and he has been offending for years,” Miller said. “He has a long history” and targets children under 12.
Miller worries that the man will molest again. A civil confinement law would give the courts another chance to make sure the man and others are rehabilitated before being released into society, she said.
“There’s no way to really know if they have been rehabilitated until you let them out and they do it again,” Miller said. “You really hate to take that chance.”
But civil libertarians argue that indefinite civil confinement punishes people for crimes they might commit.
It is up to judges to hand down appropriate sentences and let the system take its course, say some in law enforcement. Idaho sex crime laws already allow judges to hand out tough sentences, they said.
Lewd conduct with a minor, which covers everything from fondling to sexual acts, carries up to a life sentence.
“If the person needs to be confined, then he should be sentenced to be confined,” said Bonner County Sheriff Chip Roos. “The court shouldn’t be afraid of making a life sentence if it’s necessary.”
This summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Kansas law is all Lance says he needs to move forward. For his part, public defender Adams denounced the ruling.
“That’s probably the worst decision I have ever seen out of any court anywhere,” Adams said.
The public defender predicted future challenges to civil confinement laws and said politicians should not be making decisions about indefinite confinement.
“It’s real easy to get votes by being tough on crime, but when you sell out civil liberties, that’s a crime against humanity,” Adams said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: North Idaho sex offenders
MEMO: Cut in Spokane edition