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SPRINGFIELD - Give sex offenders longer prison sentences. Keep them away from schools. Take away their voting rights. Limit their driving privileges.

With more than 50 such proposals in the past two years, Illinois lawmakers are trying harder than ever to crack down on sex offenders.

Sex offenders have been in the cross hairs for years, but experts say the push is intensifying - in Illinois and across the nation - because lawmakers see not just a real safety problem, but also a way to score political points off a hated group.

"It's almost like nuclear waste. What do you do with it?" said Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion.

But treatment advocates and experts warn the laws could backfire.

Restrictions on where they can live might push more offenders into smaller areas or leave them homeless - and harder to track. Or they could discourage offenders from registering with authorities and trying to change their ways.

"Political parties are using sex offenders to demonstrate that they are tougher on law and order than the other state," said John La Fond, a retired law professor and author on sex offender treatment in Washington state. "No one really wants to know the facts anymore."

Lawmakers are considering banning sex offenders from voting to keep them out of schools' polling places and taking away driving privileges if they don't register with the state properly.

They're unapologetic for the tough stance, arguing sex offenders are highly likely to commit crimes again.

"I think it's impossible to say we get to a point where we're doing too much," said Attorney General Lisa Madigan, whose office has made stronger sex offender laws a high priority. "We've certainly made the system better in Illinois."

But others say a different approach would be more effective.

Treatment providers and experts say officials are ignoring studies that show only small numbers of sex offenders are repeat criminals and that many can change with proper treatment and help.

Prosecutors in Iowa have urged lawmakers to scale back the requirement that sex offenders live more than 2,000 feet from schools and day care centers because of the housing complications it creates.

Strict registry requirements encourage some offenders to avoid registering and even commit more crimes, advocates argue.

Advocates say it's a frustrating argument because they know lawmakers don't want to be seen as helping sex offenders, and the tough approach is easier than dealing with sex offenders individually and embracing treatment options.

Even some lawmakers see their approach's shortfalls.

"No one supports these guys, but I think we also need to be mindful of what we're passing," said Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs. "Half of it is meaningful, the other half is they're an easy target."

Rep. John Fritchey, D-Chicago, said he knew it wouldn't be easy politically to help a constituent whose son must register as a sex offender when he's released from prison this summer, even though the crime wasn't sexual. The man, then 19, murdered a teenager, one of several serious crimes against minors that requires registration as a sex offender.

Fritchey is pushing for legislators to approve a separate state registry for "violence against youth" crimes to ensure the sex offender registry is limited to sex crimes. The offenses covered in the new registry would include kidnapping, child abduction and first-degree murder.

And he warns lawmakers to make sure their initiatives actually help prevent crime.

"There needs to be a legitimate goal that is served by the enacting of any piece of legislation," Fritchey said. "Otherwise, it simply becomes a race to see who can come up with the newest and stiffest penalty for criminals."


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