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[Editorial] Korean 'Jessica’s Law'

Policymakers must consider side effects of proposed law aimed at containing repeat sex offenders

Oct. 27, 2023 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

Statistics show that sex offenders have high rates of recidivism. One of the legislations to prevent this in regard to child sex offenders is Jessica’s Law, which was passed in Florida in 2005. It mandated at least 25 years in prison for first-time child sex offenders and stricter regulations such as wearing tracking devices.

The Ministry of Justice on Tuesday introduced a draft on the South Korean equivalent to Jessica’s Law, which is designed to block convicted child sex offenders from exercising their right to choose where to live, even when they have served their time.

Under the new bill, the government will designate specific areas and facilities where sex offenders with a high risk of recidivism -- those who have committed crimes against children under the age of 13 or those who have committed such crimes three or more times -- are allowed to live. A related measure will be also introduced, making it mandatory for the offenders to go through drug treatment to suppress their sex drive.

The ministry’s move came after growing public demand for more stringent rules and restrictions against sex offenders. The ministry’s data shows that 25.6 percent of sex crimes on children and teenagers were targeted at 13 or under, and the ratio of recidivism stood at 12.9 percent.

Neighbors had expressed fear and anxiety when convicted sex offenders came to live in their district after serving prison terms. There has long been a risk to the security of people in connection with repeated sex offenders. Last year alone, 5,458 sex offenders were indicted for failing to comply with mandatory report on their residence and other private data. Worryingly, authorities do not know the whereabouts of 168 sex offenders.

Even when offenders report the location of their residences, there were serious issues. Victims were often forced to move to a different location when the predators got released from jail for fear of being attacked again. Residents held vociferous protests, calling for the released offenders to move out of the neighborhood.

The ministry said there are 325 high-risk sex offenders that should be subject to residence restrictions, and an additional 187 offenders will be released by 2025. The government is set to take up the role of monitoring and containing over 500 sex offenders, which will help relieve concerns of residents and victims to some extent. Drug treatment is also viewed as an effective measure since the rate of recidivism for treated sex offenders is 1.3 percent, compared to 10 percent for untreated criminals.

Despite the expected benefits of the proposed legislation, there are contentious issues that should be resolved. Critics of the bill argue that it will be punishing the offenders twice since they have already served in prison, raising the possibility that it could infringe on basic rights and be ruled unconstitutional.

Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said that the new law is not a restriction of basic rights to the point of undermining the fundamental principles of the Constitution.

But the government has to work hard to remove the elements of the bill that may be deemed infringement of basic rights. After all, protective custody -- the policy of detaining repeat criminals -- was abolished in 2005 over what is called the “double jeopardy,” or prosecution of a person twice for the same offense.

In addition to the legal aspect, designating appropriate areas for convicted sex offenders to reside in is an extremely difficult task. If the government asks regional administrations to set up related facilities, it is bound to cause huge controversy among policymakers and residents. No resident would gladly accept a plan to build a state-designated facility nearby housing dozens of convicted child sex offenders.

While the residency restriction for convicted sex offenders is to protect potential victims, there is no guarantee that offenders will be blocked from contacting their targets again. There is also a danger that the government could stigmatize and isolate the residents of areas where the facilities are located.

Given the explosive nature of the proposed law, the government has to fully explore and try to address related disputes to better safeguard communities against sex offenders.