No hiding place for released sex offenders

In the latest such incident to alarm civil-liberties activists, vigilantes in New Jersey this week tried to mete out their brand of instant justice on a paroled child molester - days after a controversial new state law took effect requiring reside nts tobe notified if such offenders moved to their neighbourhood.

At 3 am last Sunday, two men dressed in black broke into the house where the parolee Michael Groffe had come to live in Phillipsburg, 70 miles west of New York, saying they were looking for "the child molester". Several other people as well as Mr Groffe were in the house, and the intruders set upon the wrong man. Police were called and the two were arrested.

According to local prosecutors, the affair is the direct consequence of New Jersey's so-called "Megan's Law", named after a seven-year-old girl murdered in July 1994 by a neighbour whose previous sex crimes were unknown to local residents. The measure, rushed through the state assembly in time to come into force on 1 January, requires that local schools and youth organisations be notified if a convicted sex offender moves to their community.

The episode is far from the first of its kind. Similar examples of vigilante justice have been reported in Texas and Washington state. California and Illinois are just two of other states where courts have struck down legislation like that of New Jersey but insist that freed offenders must register with police.

Each time the basic conflict is the same; between society's desire to be protected against former convicts, especially sex offenders, who may repeat their crime, and the right of an individual to lead a normal life once he has been fully punished by the law. Either way, however, his chances of quiet haven are lessening - as another recently freed New Jersey sex offender is learning to his cost.

Carlos Diaz, who had served 12 years for rape, was released at the New Year. His lawyers successfully appealed against the application of "Megan's Law," which a judge held to be "unconstitutional added punishment". That was to reckon without the citizens' militia, the Guardian Angels, who distributed "most wanted"-style fliers to residents of Mr Diaz's former town. The police have not intervened.

"These laws just raise the level of fear, anxiety and anger," said a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, "and they can foster a climate which can lead to vigilantism."

But with public anxiety over crime showing no sign of abating, vigilantism is only likely to increase. Many states have already passed "three strikes and you're out" laws imposing mandatory life imprisonment after a third serious offence.

Georgia indeed has brought in a "two strikes" law. As events in New Jersey show, even that may not be enough.

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