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Second in a two-part series.

WATERLOO | Iowa's Sex Offender Registry grew from an idea into a law but continues to evolve.

Bonnie Campbell, Iowa attorney general from 1991-1995, was among early proponents of the registry.

"This registry will give citizens more of a chance not to be victimized by somebody who has already been convicted," she said in 1993.

A year later, Campbell was a candidate for governor, challenging the incumbent, Gov. Terry Branstad, who also endorsed the idea.

Campbell's effort to topple Branstad failed, but the registry became a reality.

Early debate about the registry focused on who should be on the list. Those deemed mentally incompetent? Juveniles? Those convicted but awaiting an appeal?

Legislators also discussed who should have access to the list, how easy that access should be and how detailed the information should be. Some worried listings would devalue real estate of those living near offenders on the registry. 

Even so, the Legislature eventually gave unanimous approval to a law creating a registry near the end of April 1995.

Branstad signed the bill, making it state law.

The law went into effect July 1, 1995, ordering all "sexual predators" and others convicted of crimes against children to sign up with the Iowa Department of Public Safety for 10 years after getting out of prison. After that, offenders were required to check in with law enforcement officials annually and whenever they got a new address.

Convictions for the following crimes were included:

  • Sexual abuse or intent to commit sexual abuse.
  • Sexual exploitation by a counselor or therapist.
  • A kidnapping of a minor that was violent or sexually abusive.
  • Solicitation of a minor.
  • Any offense involving sexual conduct with a minor.
  • Distributing or exhibiting obscene materials to minors.
  • Admitting minors to places selling pornography.

Initially, people interested in the list had to file a written request with their sheriff's office for the information. Names of those asking for the list remained confidential.

By 1995, 40 states had some kind of register for sex offenders, in part because such lists were required by the 1994 federal crime bill. The federal law, however, allowed law enforcement agencies to withhold the information from public view.

The register encountered obstacles early on.

In January 1997, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled the state's sex offender registry protects the public and does not represent double punishment for the same crime.

The justices agreed the goal of the registry "was not punitive but to promote public safety."

The justices conceded, however, distributing the information is an "unpleasant consequence of the offense."

Debate on and tinkering with the law continued.

The Iowa Civil Liberties Union a few months after the high court's ruling argued convicted sex offenders could be subjects of "terrorism" if the registry information circulated widely.

At the same time, Sen. Jeff Angelo, R-Creston, and others in the Legislature hoped to reduce the amount of discretion law enforcement officials had when deciding whether to inform residents about sex offenders in their neighborhoods. Angelo wanted detailed notices with photos, addresses and criminal histories.

The discussion stemmed from an incident early in 1997 in Coralville. A convicted sex offender assaulted an 8-year-old boy in a recreation center. James Johnson abused the boy about six weeks after his release from prison for a previous sex crime.

Coralville police had wanted to let people know the man was living in the neighborhood, but state officials would not allow the information released. Johnson pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual abuse.

Angelo and other legislators wanted to move the burden from the public.

"If somebody moved into your neighborhood and you just didn't feel right about them, what you'd do is go to the sheriff's office and you'd have to have a name and an address and a reason for wanting to know. ... That's a strange way of doing business," Angelo said in 1998.

Notifying the public initially meant officers posted flyers in neighborhoods, day cares, schools and similar entities. Authorities also submitted information to newspapers and TV stations.

That process changed dramatically in March 2000 when the state launched its website, www.iowasexoffenders.com. Users could search by name, city, ZIP code and other elements. The results, however, only showed convicted sex offenders described at medium or high risk to re-offend.

Iowa's Sex Offender Registry continued to evolve as it matured. Law enforcement officials, for instance, stopped assessing sex offenders' likelihood to commit additional crimes, and in the summer of 2004 the website began listing every offender except those younger than 20 years old.

About a year later, Iowa linked its website to the National Sex Offender Public Registry, joining 27 other states.

After tweaking the law, legislators discovered a loophole in 2005 raising concerns. Because of residency restrictions, a convicted sex offender could not legally live with a woman and her children. If the woman knew her boyfriend was a sex offender, she might be charged with child endangerment.

The law did not apply if the couple married, however.

"You can't rule out a sex offender coercing the mother," Karla Miller, director of the Rape Victim Advocacy Program in Iowa City, said at the time. "They tend to target single moms to have access to their kids. This isn't good."

Technology allowed an upgrade to the website in February 2006: mapping. Users on iowasexoffenders.com could enter an address to see if anyone of concern was within a 3-mile radius. Sliding the cursor over the icons revealed the sex offender's photo, name and address.

"We're very, very pleased with the simplicity and the ease of use that you get with the new system," state Rep. Lance Horbach of Tama County said at the time.

Legislators -- supported by many law enforcement officials and prosecutors -- made another major change in 2009, relaxing the so-called "2,000-foot law." Previously, anyone convicted of a crime against a child was restricted from living within 2,000 feet of a school or child care. The residency restrictions generally only applied to those convicted of the most serious crimes against children -- first-, second- and third-degree sexual abuse.

"Suitable housing was nearly impossible to find for those people and when they did find an address, the rental price was far above other comparable rentals," said Sgt. Steve Petersen with the Black Hawk County Sheriff's Office. He has been involved with the registry since its inception.

"Many could not afford that for long, as finding and keeping a job was also challenge. So they would move back in with friends or family in the restricted areas, then not report the move and end up being arrested for living at unknown locations," Petersen said.

Law enforcement officials spent a lot of time explaining to offenders which addresses were acceptable and which were not, according to Petersen.

Looking ahead, Terry Cowman, a special agent in charge with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, believes the Iowa Sex Offender Registry will continue to evolve as software and devices change. He doubts the thirst for information will subside.

"If anything, I think government is becoming more aware of information that the public seeks," Cowman added. "... If anything, you're going to see the information available to the public immediately is just going to expand.'

Cowman does not believe the registry is in its final version.

"I definitely think that changes are ahead. As technology changes, we try to change with it," he added.

"Where this ends up in 20 years is anybody's guess."

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Regional Editor for the Courier

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