Editor's note: Jane Velez-Mitchell is host of the HLN show, "Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell," a topical event-driven show with a wide range of viewpoints. Velez-Mitchell is the author of "Secrets Can Be Murder: What America's Most Sensational Crimes Tell Us About Ourselves."
Jane Velez-Mitchell says tougher penalties are needed to keep sex offenders from committing more crimes.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Early last month, beautiful 25-year-old Laura Garza went missing. Her family holds out hope she is still alive.
An aspiring dancer from Texas, Garza moved to New York City to pursue her career. On December 2nd, she went to the posh Manhattan nightclub Marquee to blow off some steam with her friend.
Security video shows Garza leaving the club with convicted sex offender Michael Mele, according to the New York Police Department. NYPD officials confirmed that Mele then drove Garza about an hour away toward his apartment. Garza was reported missing the next day.
New York state police searched Mele's apartment and court documents indicate officers observed apparent bite marks on Mele's hand and scratches on his back and shoulder.
According to court records and state police, large pieces of carpet were missing from his apartment and days later, carpet pieces that seemed to match Mele's were found on the side of a nearby road.
Search parties have been combing roads, woods, and swampland, and police divers searched for clues in a nearby lake, but the search has gone cold in recent weeks. Mele is in jail for violating probation and is a suspect, but he has not been charged in Garza's disappearance, according to state police.
Laura Garza is still missing more than a month later. Her family has joined search efforts in New York and prays they will find her alive, but police are treating the case as a homicide.
The worst part about this tragic story? It may have been preventable. Laura Garza had no idea she was leaving that club with a sex offender. After all, most of them look pretty normal. Few fit the Hollywood stereotype of the creepy guy wearing a trench coat and driving a white van.
Laura Garza may have been unaware who she was with that night, but the legal system certainly knew him.
Michael Mele previously pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual assault, including one count of masturbating in front of two women. And he was violating probation. And he had an outstanding warrant for allegedly exposing himself to a woman in a mall parking lot.
Mele hasn't been convicted of anything in this case or charged in Garza's disappearance, but even if he is innocent, the larger question of how the criminal justice system deals with sex offenders remains a vital issue.
In a sane world, Mele is not a free man on that night, able to allegedly target Laura Garza.
But we don't live in a sane world. We live in a world where sexual assault is business as usual. Where's the outrage?
The Garza case is a microcosm of a societal problem. As a nation, we must realize there is no such thing as a "minor" sexual offense -- because sex offenders often start small and graduate to more serious crimes.
According to a 2003 Department of Justice study, 78 percent of imprisoned sex offenders had prior arrests and 28 percent had prior arrests for sex crimes.
According to the same study, one quarter of men serving time for rape and 19 percent of those serving time for sexual assault had been on probation or parole at the time of the offense that landed them in prison.
The formula is simple. Sex offenders start off by nabbing the easy prey -- committing the so-called "minor" sexual offenses like flashing random women, or the crimes Michael Mele committed.
Then, after getting away with it or receiving a slap on the wrist, they become hungrier and develop into full-fledged predators. And it's only when they sink their teeth into their prey that the legal system finally brings down the hammer. But it's too late.
To stop this progression, we must start treating all sexual offenses as major crimes. In the same Justice Department study, on average, the sex offenders served less than half of their sentences. So basically that means Paris Hilton served more of her sentence than the average person convicted of a sex crime does. I'm glad our justice system has its priorities straight.
The simple answer is to take all sex offenders off the streets, from the moment they commit the first "minor" offense. I'm not just talking about putting them behind bars. We need to rehabilitate these predators at the earliest stage possible, before their behavior worsens.
And if the prisons are too crowded to hold them, how about releasing some of the nonviolent drug offenders to make some room? They can't be worse than sex offenders on the prowl who, compared with non-sex offenders released from prison, are four times more likely to be rearrested for a sex crime, according to a government study.
This problem is out in the open. I see it. My viewers see it. But how many Laura Garzas will it take to before politicians and judges see it and are willing to do something about it?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jane Velez-Mitchell.
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