Why Are Sex Offenders Set Free?

Q&A with a Former Defense Attorney for Sex Criminals
(“Grave Danger,” “Ring Him up High,” Forensic Files)

Last week’s post on “Grave Danger” touched on the issue of lenient sentences for sex offenders — in that case, the 30 days a court gave Clayton Daniels in 2004 for raping his 7-year-old cousin.

Shannon Melendi

Fortunately, Clay won’t have a chance to turn into a repeat offender anytime soon, as he shortly afterward collected a 30-year jail term in connection with an insurance-fraud scheme.

Two times a predator. But what about those who do finish their prison terms and go on to commit other sex crimes? The “Ring Him Up High” episode of Forensic Files tells the story of Emory University student Shannon Melendi, 19, who was murdered by Delta Airlines mechanic Colvin “Butch” Hinton.

Hinton 33, had a previous conviction for sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl. His first wife had walked in as the crime was in progress and testified that she saw the victim with her mouth taped and ankles and wrists bound.

A judge sentenced Hinton to four years. He got out after serving half that term and then moved to Atlanta, where he met Melendi at a softball game and abducted and killed her in 1994.

Whether you see it on Forensic Files or read about it online or in the newspaper, it does seem that all too frequently, when the authorities catch a sex criminal, it turns out he’s already served time for a similar offense.

View from front lines. Those are the moments when we all want to start ranting: “Why did they let this person back on the streets? Don’t you people (judges, parole boards, etc.) care who you’re unleashing on the law-abiding public? Do all of us villagers have to turn into pitchfork-wielding vigilantes to get justice?”

Colvin “Butch” Hinton in in Georgia’s Hays State Prison

The hope is always that the reason we hear about these repeat-offender cases in the media is that they’re infrequent enough to be newsworthy — in the way that, conversely, we rarely see media reports about motorists receiving parking tickets because it happens all the time.

To get some perspective, I talked to a lawyer who was assigned to defend violent sex predators for a state government agency in the last decade.

The lawyer, who requested anonymity, felt that horror stories like that of Shannon Melendi are the rare exceptions rather than the rule. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Why does the legal system put so many sex criminals back on the streets Many states don’t. Nobody wants these people back out on the streets. In fact, sometimes they’re held in custody after their sentences are finished.

In the state where I worked,  before a violent sex offender could be released at the end of his sentence, the law required that he be seen by a state-appointed mental health professional who assesses his probability of reoffending.

The ones the mental health professionals assess as low risk are released at the end of their sentences. Still, Megan’s Law affects where they can live. Their whereabouts are discoverable.

If they are assessed as still dangerous, in some states, they then are put into a special facility or unit for those at a high risk of reoffending. They don’t get out.

So even when their sentences are over, they can still be held in custody?
Yes. One guy couldn’t find a place to live because of Megan’s Law. So he was not let out.

Did you feel the process was fair to the sex offenders themselves?
Not entirely. 

When sex offenders are in prison, they see mental health professionals periodically. Then those same mental health professionals are the ones who offer an opinion to the court as to whether these people are no longer risks and can be let out of jail.

For you and me, of course, mental health professionals seeing us for therapy must keep all information confidential – the only thing they can reveal is a situation in which the patient is going to commit a crime, something that hasn’t happened yet.

But in the case of a sexually violent offender, a mental health professional can report to the court anything the offender says.

Also, for any other type of crime, even murder, you get out when you’ve served your sentence – no requirement to be assessed first. 

Many sex offenders were convicted before the law [requiring assessment before release] existed.

Did all that give you pause?
At first, it may seem unfair in some aspects, but then you meet some of the violent sexual predators and you start to come over to the state’s side. You interview people who are playing with themselves under the table.

I had one sex offender tell me that, where he’s from, men rape women — it’s just something they do

Did you meet any sex offenders you had sympathy for?
There was one guy in jail for 30 years who committed offenses when he was 17. We all did things as teenagers we would never do now.

Also some offenders would refuse to meet with the mental health professionals to be assessed. They’d say, “Why bother? They’ll just keep me in.”

The common wisdom is that sex offenders reoffend more often than other criminals, but that’s never been proven.

Do you feel Megan’s Law has made kids safer?
No. Megan’s law can provide a false sense of security because you can find out if a predator lives near you, but you don’t know about the ones who haven’t been caught yet or even acted yet. You have to watch your children — that’s the bottom line. It’s a dangerous world.

Note: An undated story on Florida news website Keynews.com reported that Hinton was (at least once) denied parole.

4 thoughts on “Why Are Sex Offenders Set Free?”

  1. I don’t have children, but the thought of any person being sexually abused is horrific. I hope these people can be rehabilitated.

  2. The dilemma is over keeping offenders incarcerated who’ve served their time (assuming the time was reasonable), but keeping them there for what they might do. Is is fair to keep someone in prison for what they may do if freed? Of course, it’s reasonable to assume that the more they’ve offended in the past, the hardened and more likely they are to do it in the future — but risk assessment isn’t a fine science, and it’s apparently unfair to err on the side of caution by containing someone who’s assessed as a mere possible risk. In these cases, tagging and regular reporting to probation staff at least keeps an eye on them.

    In Hinton’s case he should have got much longer for earlier crimes, and I think he plainly should never be paroled — though his current sentence perplexingly allows it, it seems, when he surely should have got life without…?

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