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Stricter sex offender rules among new state laws

Sex offenders who commit certain crimes against children will face at least 25 years in prison and be required to stay registered with the state for 30 years under a new law.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Sex offenders who commit certain crimes against children will face at least 25 years in prison and be required to stay registered with the state for 30 years under a new North Carolina statute that took effect Monday.

But some say part of the new rule that prohibits where convicted sex offenders can go is too vague and needs further clarification by the state Legislature.

The Jessica Lunsford Act – named for the 9-year-old former Gaston County girl who was kidnapped, raped and buried alive in 2005 by a convicted sex offender in Florida –restricts offenders from being within 300 feet of any place children gather, including playgrounds, day cares, schools and malls.

"Some of the things in there right now, I do have a concern about – the churches, the places in the malls where they may be shopping," Harrison said. "How are we going to enforce that?"

"We're getting calls from offenders who are released and want to follow the law. They don't know if they can go to a church with a day care in it," said Sarah Preston, legal counsel for the North Carolina ACLU.

The law also requires sex offenders to register with the local sheriff's office within three days of changing their address, and it also requires sex offenders who are released from prison to be monitored for life by a Global Positioning Satellite.

Other new laws require convicted sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses and other online user IDs with the state sex offender registry and make it a felony for registered sex offenders to access social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

Gang activity if another focus among the 25 latest statutes.

Responding to a growing gang problem in both small-town and urban areas, the Legislature agreed in July to raise penalties for what's considered gang-related crimes, such as drive-by shootings.

Anyone considered to be a gang leader – as defined by the law – or trying to threaten someone to join a gang or prevent them from leaving one, also face new felony charges, with a maximum prison term of about four years.

In the past, prosecutors and police had few enforcement options, said John Hodges, president of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police.

"I think it gives us a little more teeth, where we can have a little more bite in prevention," said Hodges, police chief of Hope Mills, which has seen gang graffiti and interest rise among young people. "We've sought this for a long time."

Lawmakers had worked on fashioning an anti-gang bill for three years. During the same period, the Governor's Crime Commission had estimated the number of gang members in the state had risen from 8,500 to more than 14,500.

The bill with new punishments got delayed last year as some lawmakers were concerned there wasn't enough done to deal with prevention.

A companion bill approved this year and already in effect ordered local juvenile crime prevention councils and others to get more involved in youth susceptible to gang activity.

The new law also gives young people the chance to remove a first-time gang conviction from their criminal records with good behavior.

"We have a sense of balance in that we try to prevent kids from getting involved in gangs in the first place," said Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, a strong proponent of both pieces of legislation.

Responding to past and recent incidents, particularly in the South, the Legislature also agreed - starting Monday - to make it a higher grade of felony to burn a cross or hang a noose to intimidate. Cross burnings now are also illegal in any public place - before it had applied only to someone else's property or on public streets and highways.

Court clerks now also must report to a federal database the names of people who have been involuntarily committed to mental health treatment because they pose a threat to themselves or others. People identified in the database cannot purchase weapons because it's used by gun vendors when conducting background checks.

The mandatory reporting was recommended by a task force created by Attorney General Roy Cooper following the 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech.

Other new laws approved by the Legislature include:

  • Expanding the state's video poker game ban to include a new form created as part of a retail promotion that allow people to play games resembling slot machines.
  • Making it a felony to stalk someone when the defendant is under a court order barred from such activity.
  • Raising the penalty for misdemeanor child abuse.
  • Stiffening the penalty for hit-and-runs in which a person suffers seriously bodily injuries.
  • Making vandalism resulting in more than $5,000 in damages a felony.
  • Strengthening the penalties for violating domestic violence protective orders.

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