John Stossel

Watching presidential candidates promise to "fix" America fills me with dread.

A reason I have this reaction is that I've been doing reports for "20/20" on previous politicians' campaigns to "fix" child sex abuse.

Sexual abuse was always a problem, but in the early 1990s, something changed. Several pretty white girls were victimized at a time when the 24-hour cable-news cycle was hungry for new drama. Heinous child molestation became the big story. So publicity-seeking politicians clamored for new laws.

One result of their campaign was Megan's Law, which requires police to notify neighbors when a sex offender lives nearby. States were also ordered to establish registries so that when sex offenders are released from prison or put on probation, everyone can keep track of them.

It does seem important to know when a dangerous person lives nearby, but these laws have freedom-killing effects that go well beyond their proponents' good intentions.

For last week's "20/20", I interviewed sex offender Frank Rodriquez. Because he admits he repeatedly had sex with a child, he will forever be listed on the Texas sex-offender registry. His name and picture are posted next to those of murderers of children and a man who molested 200 kids.

But Frank's "crime" was different. He had sex with his high-school girlfriend. She says it was her idea.

Nikki was a 15-year-old freshman when Frank was a senior. Nikki's mom knew that Nikki and Frank were intimate and even took her to Planned Parenthood for birth-control pills. But her mother didn't like the relationship, and one night, she and Nikki got into a fight. Her mom went to the police and filed charges against Frank because the age of consent in Texas is 17.

The next morning, she decided to drop the charges, but the police said it was too late. They charged Frank with sexual assault of a child.

Frank's court-appointed defense attorney told him he had two bad choices: plead guilty and accept seven years' probation or go to trial and possibly spend 20 years in prison.

So he took the plea bargain. It kept him out of prison, but it gave him a different kind of life sentence: life as a registered sex offender.

Frank had to move out of his family home because his 12-year-old sister lived there. He lived by himself in a trailer. He needed permission from a judge just to go to his brother's high school football games.

And above all he was told, "Stay away from your girlfriend."

"They told me if I were to see her, run. Run the opposite way. I wasn't able to see her, they told me, until she was 17."

The very day Nikki turned 17, she moved in with Frank. They lived together, and a few years later, they got married. That was almost nine years ago. Today they have four little girls.

Marrying Nikki, however, didn't change Frank's legal situation. While he was on probation, he couldn't take the kids to parks and playgrounds because other children were there. He was told he'd have to get special permission to pick up his own kids from day care.

For the rest of his life, he'll be on the sex registry.

He isn't in jail, but registering as a sex offender every year and worrying that people will think he's a pedophile or a rapist is a kind of prison. When Frank and Nikki are an elderly couple, he will still be listed as a man who victimized a 15-year-old child.

That's insane.

The Centers for Disease Control says 25 percent of 15-years-olds admit to having had intercourse. Almost 40 percent of 16-year-olds say they've had sex. So in most states, under today's tough laws, millions of kids are guilty of sex crimes. Most, of course, are never prosecuted.

But if you are a member of the "wrong" ethnic group, or a cop doesn't like you, or the father of the girl doesn't like you (more on that next week), your life can be ruined.

Laws always have unintended consequences. Beware candidates who promise to cure society's ills.


John Stossel

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "No They Can't: Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at >johnstossel.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. ©Creators Syndicate