Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A sex offender is a sex offender is a sex offender ... or not

I am on a bit of a mission to debunk this notion that sex offenders can't be sympathetic.

It's easier than one might think, and  this gripping article from Reason Magazine makes most of my case for me.  Sex offenders may be the pariahs of the modern-day criminal justice system, but that label -- "sex offender" -- can be easily misapplied. Plus, it carries crazy mandatory minimum sentences and life-altering consequences, even for people who don't deserve them.

"Perverted Justice" is the name of the article, and it does an excellent job explaining the downsides of America's obsession with extremely harsh punishments and life-long consequences for so-called sex offenders.  Being labeled a sex offender is no small burden -- it means being put on a public registry (sometimes for life), being banned from living near children (including, sometimes, one's own), and a good deal of shame, ostracization, and humiliation.  It also means long mandatory sentences (again, sometimes for life).  While no one wants to see a child harmed or a person raped, the excessive punishments and harsh consequences don't necessarily mean justice is done -- or that we're safer.

Check out these draw-dropping stats on sex offender registries and what gets labeled a "sex offense":

Data from the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey indicate that more than 90 percent of sexually abused minors are assaulted by relatives or acquaintances—people they trust. (According to the same survey, strangers commit just one in four sexual assaults on adults. They commit only 14 percent of sexual assaults reported to police.)
Furthermore, according to a 1997 Justice Department study, nearly nine out of 10 people arrested for sex offenses have no prior convictions for this category of crime, so they would not show up in sex offender registries.
Meanwhile, the people on sex offender lists may pose little or no threat. A 2007 report by Human Rights Watch found that “at least 28 states require registration as a sex offender for someone convicted of having consensual sex with another teenager, if the offender was either age 17 or two years older than the other party.” Eleven states set no minimum age difference. ...
The Human Rights Watch report also found that at least five states required registration for offenses related to adult prostitution, at least 13 required registration for public urination, and at least 32 required registration for exposing one’s genitals in public. And from the information given in a registry, which typically is limited to a vague legal description of the offense, it is often hard to tell what someone did to end up there.

Now, while I'm certainly not excited about the idea of public genital displays, that seedy act is a far cry from a rape or child molestation. So is the case of a 19 year-old sleeping with his 15 year-old girlfriend.  Or the 10 year-old kid who touched his 5 year-old cousin's genitals and is registered as a sex offender even though he's not exactly sure what sex entails.  (True story -- read the article.)  Or the guy sitting at home looking at child pornography with no intention of acting on those fantasies.

Mandatory minimum sentences for child pornography offenses have sparked an uproar among federal judges for their ridiculous unintended consequences:
In a devastating 2008 critique of these sentencing policies, available on his office’s website, [assistant federal public defender Troy] Stabenow shows that Congress ratcheted the penalties for looking at child pornography upward through a series of ill-considered, undebated dictates driven by little more than public outrage and disgust. The upshot: Between 1997 and 2007, the number of people sent to federal prison for possessing, receiving, or distributing (but not producing) child pornography quintupled, from 238 to 1,170, while the average sentence more than quadrupled, from 21 to 91 months. Among the baffling results of these policies: A defendant with no prior criminal record and no history of abusing children would qualify for a sentence of 15 to 20 years based on a small collection of child pornography and one photo swap, while a 50-year-old man who encountered a 13-year-old girl online and lured her into a sexual relationship would get no more than four years. The comparison, Stabenow writes, “demonstrates the absurdity of the system.”
We have to get beyond a scary label.  Not every "sex offender" deserves a harsh sentence or a lifetime of painful repercussions over one incident.  Sex offense cases are as complex as any drug conspiracy, and the defendants involved deserve the same individualized treatment that all offenders should receive at sentencing.

-- Stowe


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this important post. It is maddening that someone charged with possession of child pornography may get probation, but if prosecutors wish, they can charge the same crime with Receipt of Child Porn and impose a Mandatory Minimum of 5 years. Judges frequently impose LIFETIME Supervised Release for Receipt - so you can cause physical harm and be free after just a few years, but someone who had just a few pictures and never left their basement can be supervised for LIFE!
Not to mention all those same people (those who viewed pictures and never touched a child) who are parents and will be prohibited from attending their own child's sports functions, birthday parties, etc. The list goes on. The punishment then is more on the children of sex offenders.

SentenceSpeak said...

Thanks for this thoughtful comment!

Anonymous said...

Here in Delaware, where a child predator was allowed to go for years molesting babies and young children, the infamous Bradey case. Since this so called doctor has finally come to justice here in Delaware. District Attorney Joe Biden III has called for all cases involving any kind of sexual offense to be indicted. I'm dealing with a false allegation case and the young man in doing 3 years. The judge sentenced over the Prosecutors recommended 1 year for a plea. No one goes free in Delaware, there is no justice......Thanks, Gonna Tell It

Anonymous said...

thank you, thank you for thinking about this issue, and even more for speaking out about it. The families of these offenders suffer tremendously, at first because of the offense, secondly because of the draconian punishment, and thirdly at terror that some wacko will read "sex offender" and try to make a name for themselves by harming the (alleged)(non)(former) offender.