UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

August 10, 2009

AMERICA'S OVER THE TOP SEX OFFENDER LAWS

Economist - America’s sex-offender laws are the strictest of any rich democracy. Convicted rapists and child-molesters are given long prison sentences. When released, they are put on sex-offender registries. In most states this means that their names, photographs and addresses are published online, so that fearful parents can check whether a child-molester lives nearby. Under the Adam Walsh Act of 2006, another law named after a murdered child, all states will soon be obliged to make their sex-offender registries public. Such rules are extremely popular. Most parents will support any law that promises to keep their children safe. Other countries are following America’s example, either importing Megan’s laws or increasing penalties: after two little girls were murdered by a school caretaker, Britain has imposed multiple conditions on who can visit schools.

Which makes it all the more important to ask whether America’s approach is the right one. In fact its sex-offender laws have grown self-defeatingly harsh. . . Stricter curbs on pedophiles win votes. And to sound severe, such curbs must be stronger than the laws in place, which in turn were proposed by politicians who wished to appear tough themselves. Few politicians dare to vote against such laws, because if they do, the attack ads practically write themselves. . .

In all, 674,000 Americans are on sex-offender registries-more than the population of Vermont, North Dakota or Wyoming. The number keeps growing partly because in several states registration is for life and partly because registries are not confined to the sort of murderer who ensnared Megan Kanka. According to Human Rights Watch, at least five states require registration for people who visit prostitutes, 29 require it for consensual sex between young teenagers and 32 require it for indecent exposure. Some prosecutors are now stretching the definition of “distributing child pornography” to include teens who text half-naked photos of themselves to their friends.

How dangerous are the people on the registries? A state review of one sample in Georgia found that two-thirds of them posed little risk. . .

Registration is often just the start. Sometimes sex offenders are barred from living near places where children congregate. In Georgia no sex offender may live or work within 1,000 feet of a school, church, park, skating rink or swimming pool. In Miami an exclusion zone of 2,500 feet has helped create a camp of homeless offenders under a bridge. Make the punishment fit the crime

There are three main arguments for reform. First, it is unfair to impose harsh penalties for small offences. Perhaps a third of American teenagers have sex before they are legally allowed to, and a staggering number have shared revealing photographs with each other. This is unwise, but hardly a reason for the law to ruin their lives. Second, America’s sex laws often punish not only the offender, but also his family. If a man who once slept with his 15-year-old girlfriend is barred for ever from taking his own children to a playground, those children suffer.

Third, harsh laws often do little to protect the innocent. The police complain that having so many petty sex offenders on registries makes it hard to keep track of the truly dangerous ones. Cash that might be spent on treating sex offenders-which sometimes works-is spent on huge indiscriminate registries. Public registers drive serious offenders underground, which makes them harder to track and more likely to reoffend. And registers give parents a false sense of security: most sex offenders are never even reported, let alone convicted.

It would not be hard to redesign America’s sex laws. Instead of lumping all sex offenders together on the same list for life, states should assess each person individually and include only real threats. Instead of posting everything on the internet, names could be held by the police, who would share them only with those, such as a school, who need to know. Laws that bar sex offenders from living in so many places should be repealed, because there is no evidence that they protect anyone: a predator can always travel. The money that a repeal saves could help pay for monitoring compulsive molesters more intrusively-through ankle bracelets and the like.

8 Comments:

Anonymous purple said...

Your comment that politicians are afraid to vote against these laws is spot-on. The stigma is so bad, that I (and I'm sure others) was already enraged when I had just started to read the first few sentences of your post. I thought, how could there be any complaint against strict sex-offender laws? I was afraid of the old 'horrible criminals have rights too' argument getting me riled up. However, your point on teens having consentual sex is right. This is another example of how we all need to wait, read all the way through, hear someone out, THEN make our judgement. I hate when politicians and MSM make this mistake, but I can admit that I just did it. I'm glad I read your post all the way through. purpleplease.net

August 10, 2009 5:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't imagine the country will suddenly begin to make decisions based on sound science rather than money. These lists and long sentences are big business for the Corrections Industry-the most powerful lobby in the great State of California BTW.

August 10, 2009 11:26 PM  
Anonymous Mairead said...

The relatively few molesters who are compulsive recidivists would be better dealt with as people who contracted, through no fault of their own, a serious, incurable, contagious disease: sequester them for the rest of their lives in comfortable but inescapable surroundings. Provide them everything they might need except access to additional victims. Besides being more humane, I'm sure it would be much cheaper than what we currently do, too.

August 11, 2009 11:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know first hand how useless most of these laws are and how yes they do in fact hurt the people around the offender. I am a person who many years ago committed these crimes. I was put on a lifetime of registration. I've taken responsibility for my past actions and vowed to never harm another child again. I've been offense free since 2001. I do agree that yes there are some very bad people out there who do need extensive monitoring if they are going to be out in public. But there are also some out there who do rehabilitate themselves and try to go on with their lives. Most do have families who depend on them like myself. As stated in this commentary, there are better ways to have sex offender laws. I feel that when it comes to the registries they should take into account if the person has committed any more crimes and base the length of being on the registry on those facts. I still have children who love me and depend me on me to support them and as things are, I will always suffer financially because I can never get a truly good job because of the registry. My children dont deserve that do they. Yes, I agree with everyone. It was my fault for my own actions but how far do we go with it? There are a lot of people out there in this country who committ sexual offenses who are good people. They make some really bad choices and dont see the damage they are doing to the victim and others around them.

August 11, 2009 12:10 PM  
Anonymous Mairead said...

The sad part is that most are like you, A1210: non-recidivists. People whose crime can truly be said to have been a one-time failure of judgement and who should be forgiven after that becomes clear.

August 11, 2009 2:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a female offender. I have two children at home and I have successfully completed my states required counciling. In my state I will be required to register for life. I can not imagin going into the sherrifs department when I'm 60 or older to register. I have committed myself to doing what I need to do to keep myself from hurting another child. My children, that were born after my conviction, should not be punished for my mistakes. I cannot go to their school unless I have permission from their principal. Therefore I cannot properly support them in their education. I agree that violent or repeat offenders should be monitored but I think that we should also worry about the neighbor that has not been "caught". I don't know what numbers are but I am sure that for every one that has been "caught" there are more out there that have not been "caught". My other concern is that as an offender I am continually being punished for one crime. No other criminal offence has a registry. I wish that I had the money and the confidence to make this problem more widely understood instead of the myths and assumptions that are so prevelent in the world of sex offences.

August 12, 2009 1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My son is on a sex offender registry from a false accusation. He was only 15. He passed multiple polygraphs, and her medical exam showed her virginally intact after claiming he raped her everyday for two weeks. Rape shield laws protected her 3 past accusations.

The change in laws that made it easier to convict guilty people made it easier to convict innocent people.

My son was forced to accept an Alford plea (not admitting guilty, but considered a guilty plea) when the accuser and family fled the state 10 days before trial. He never allowed to face his accuser in court. She ever testified - her word alone to police stood. "Children never lie" railroaded my son into a lifetime of hell.

Every birthday for the past 11 years my son has been forced to register for a crime he did not commit.

His younger brother had to enroll in school in the next town after a 'concerned mom' let everyone in his class know his brother was a sex offender.

His older sister lost a fiance, he feared losing custody of his son if his ex found out about her brother.

The wonderful young couple next door lost a huge amount of money on the sale of their home - next door to a sex offender.

I no longer associate with my neighbors - it's demoralizing to know they have spied on me and my family. I live in fear everyday some nut case will show up on our door step with a gun.

All to 'save the children'...what tokens of evil we have turned our children into...

August 19, 2009 5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having read the article, I feel I should speak about my own experience here in the UK.

I am a convicted offender, and I have had to register also, however the laws here do not seem to be as strict (I was shocked when I read the article as the harshness in which offenders are treated is the states seems to me to be extremely excessive).

I have to be on@the national register for five years (as is the minimum here) and I narrowly escaped a custodial sentance due to my remorse regarding my actions and the fact that I handed myself in.

One benefit of being on the register here rather than the states is that it is not made public, this is to ensure the safety of registrants.

I know all to well how valubale the non-disclosure is, having been the victim of a smear campaign things could have been a lot worse had my details been made available to the public as a whole.

With regards to ensuring the safty of others, the police here work very closely with offenders and probation workers, to ensure the offender rehabiltates an does not pose a threat.

August 19, 2009 8:38 PM  

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