Green means go -- or that's what is used to mean for pre-schoolers. If State Sen. Kevin Coughlin (R-Cuyahoga Falls) and State Rep. Michael DeBose (D-Cleveland) get their way, kids will have to learn that in Ohio green means "run away."
Senate Bill 56 and House Bill 83 would require convicted sex offenders to display fluorescent green license plates on their cars, making them easily identifiable to all who see them driving.
"Driving is not a right," DeBose says. "It's a privilege -- and if they violate that privilege, we as legislators have the right to protect our families, our wives and our daughters. What it does is it identifies the person as a sexual predator, so (people) will be on the lookout for anyone with that type of tag. It will slow them doing hurt, harm and danger because they have that tag on there."
Green plates with special serial numbers would be required on all vehicles registered to an offender and for any vehicle an offender operates. The requirement would apply for the duration she or he is required to register -- from 15 years to life. Penalties for a former offender who drives a car without the plates -- and for anyone who loans a car to a former offender -- would face stiff fines and jail time.
The bill exempts employees who must drive a company-registered vehicle for work, as long as an employer is notified the former offender will be using the vehicle. A window sticker would replace the plate on vehicles with temporary tags or out-of-state registration.
Judges would be required to assign the plates to some offenders and have the ability to require them for others, according to DeBose. With the recent passage of Senate Bill 10 -- a comprehensive overhaul of Ohio's sex-offender laws, signed into law June 30 -- the specifics of applying this proposal would be complicated.
The "crime prevention" spin angers one mom, who says the plates are a knee-jerk reaction to an emotional issue and won't yield any substantive results. She wants effective education programs instead.
"You cannot put a green license plate on every threat to a child," says Kim, a mother in southwest Ohio who doesn't want her full name used. "It alludes to the idea that the majority of sexual offenses against children are from strangers. They are not.
"Most of those threats come from within your own home, within your own family, within your own circle of friends.
"Parents are constantly over-trusting people -- dropping them off at this club or that club and walking away because they trust. They don't teach their children how to protect themselves. If someone wants your child, he's going to get your child. The stranger is not going to be in a car with a green license plate if he wants our child. So how are we protecting the public?"
Ironically, the inspiration for the bill could put DeBose into that category of being "too trusting." His daughter was walking home from church alone when a man "harassed" her and then got into a van and followed her all the way home, DeBose says.
The man disappeared by the time DeBose came out of the house. Friends and neighbors gave him the impression that the driver was recently released from prison and was a "sexual predator."
DeBose admits he's done no research into the potential benefits or effectiveness of the green license plates and has received conflicting responses from law enforcement -- some cops oppose it, and some support it. He also admits there might be some flaws in the legislation. But he insists it's a good idea.
"The number one place where kids are kidnapped and violated is the bus stop," he says. "They take these kids from the bus stop using cars. They don't put them in a sack and carry them away. What we're trying to do is identify those cars so that people can have some idea what they're facing."
Having a parent at the bus stop with the kids might seem more practical, but DeBose says that isn't an option.
"Parents have to work," he says.
DeBose says he wants to educate adults and children about what green plates mean, but the bill has no provisions for education.
Pressed about the potential for unintended harmful consequences, DeBose doesn't think there will be any. But consider Kim's family, which includes both a juvenile sex offender and his juvenile victim -- his sister.
"In my situation, where the offender and the victim are in the same household, the green license plate would be on my car -- that my son drove," Kim says. "My daughter, the innocent victim, would be sitting in the back seat. What sense does that make?"
DeBose dismisses her concern.
"If the car's in the name of the sexual predator, they need to get it out of that name into a family member's name," he says. "The cost is not prohibitive. ... I'm not going to argue that point."
But that won't change the consequences for the families, friends and neighbors who have to deal with them. More than 85 percent of all abusers are known by their victims. Strangers who abuse kids account for a minority, according to Kim.
"The people who are pushing these laws represent 2 to 5 percent of the cases," she says. "Who is out there representing the other 95 to 98 percent? The reason why they're not out there -- people like me -- is because of the stigma that has been attached to this."
One public policy expert in Cincinnati agrees with Kim.
"It's really a no-brainer in terms of how stupid this is," says David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center (www.ohiojpc.org). "Most offenders offend against people they know well. Having them bear a green license plate isn't going to stop them.
"It's more of the same in terms of political gimmicks to make people feel like they're safe when they're not. It's not going to do a thing to prevent a sexual offense. We continue to pass these laws, and it gives (the public) a false sense of security when what we're doing is driving these people underground. We keep piling these restrictions on these people, and it's only going to make them stop registering." ©