Monday, August 10, 2009

Smell the Fear

Jacob links to this Economist article that looks at our bizarre, screwed up laws regarding a class of erstwhile criminals we've dubbed "sex offenders." We've all heard the stories of people who are mired on sex offender registries for crimes that seem laughably benign, and the Economist goes into all that. But then it reports on a proposed solution from Human Rights Watch:
Human Rights Watch urges America to scale back its sex-offender registries. Those convicted of minor, non-violent offences should not be required to register, says Ms Tofte. Nor should juveniles. Sex offenders should be individually assessed, and only those judged likely to rape someone or abuse a child should be registered. Such decisions should be regularly reviewed and offenders who are rehabilitated (or who grow too old to reoffend) should be removed from the registry. The information on sex-offender registries should be held by the police, not published online, says Ms Tofte, and released “on a need-to-know basis”. Blanket bans on all sex offenders living and working in certain areas should be abolished. Instead, it makes sense for the most dangerous offenders sometimes to face tailored restrictions as a condition of parole.
Eminently reasonable. It's hard to argue against these reforms from a rational perspective. But then again, nothing about this issue is addressed rationally.

For some reason, the issue of sex offenses brings out the fear in all of us. As the father of a 17-month-old daughter, I get it. You're constantly watching out for things that could hurt your child. But the irrationality of fear is astounding. My kid is more likely to die in a playground accident than to be victimized by a sexual predator, yet I still take her to the park. She's more likely to drown in the pool, yet I still take her swimming (or try to - she's not a fan of the water yet). I've taken her to baseball games (flying balls) and soccer games where we sit right behind the net. And yeah, all of these things are a constant fear, but not so that I'd change my routine because of it. And if a guy who had consensual sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend lives within 1000 feet of the park, I'm supposed to be crippled by fear? Anyone who's using their brain knows that's ridiculous.

Clearly it's the presence of sex that deals the death blow to rationality here. Thing is, though, that the worst sort of sexual offenses - rape, child molestation... you know, the ones we're all scared of - have little to do with sex and everything to do with power and control. It's not out-of-control sexual urges that are the culprit; rather, it's the use of those urges to control others that truly concerns us. Our sexualities are so deeply personal that crimes against them should perhaps be punished more severely than other crimes. Indeed, the use of something so deeply personal as a means to control and intimidate us is what makes sex crimes so severe and the specter of their commission such a powerful vehicle for fear. But let's not lose the rationality here. Most of what we call sex crimes are rather benign misdemeanors. Perhaps the 45-year-old teacher who takes advantage of his/her 15-year-old student is a danger, but the student's 19-year-old paramour poses little threat to society. Same goes for the guy who runs around naked on the football field.

More than anything else, provision for a case-by-case determination of what offenses ought to be punished by registration is what is needed here. And the burden should be on the prosecution to explain why registration is necessary to protect society from the offender. And I guess we'll just have to hope that one juror out of twelve can think rationally about this sort of thing.


Barzelay said...

"And I guess we'll just have to hope that one juror out of twelve can think rationally about this sort of thing."

But don't forget, neither a 12-person jury, nor jury unanimity are considered U.S. Constitutional guarantees!

Depending on what crime you're being charged with, and in what state, you may be convicted with much less than 12 jurors. The Supreme Court hasn't taken a jury unanimity case in a long time, but they refused to hear an appeal last year from someone convicted of murder in Oregon on an 11-1 vote. The last time the Court weighed in was 30 years ago or so, with a Louisiana case, where it upheld (if my memory is correct) a 9-3 conviction! It has, however, weighed in that federal trials require a unanimous verdict of 12, and it has stated that when there are only six jurors, the verdict must be unanimous.

Scary shit.

lsmsrbls said...

"My kid is more likely to die in a playground accident than to be victimized by a sexual predator, yet I still take her to the park. She's more likely to drown in the pool, yet I still take her swimming (or try to - she's not a fan of the water yet)."

Are you sure about this? I have many friends who have been victims of sexual predation, but I don't know any who have died on a playground or in a pool. Of course, someone who dies as a toddler is unlikely to grow up and be my friend, but still. Sexual abuse is pretty damn common.

Though I agree that our laws suck in this regard and that most people inaccurately assess risks, and particularly elevate the risk of rape by a stranger.

Mike said...

That is a fair point, Jeff. I know a few victims of sexual abuse (men and women) while I don't know anyone (at least no one springs to mind) who has lost a child to a playground accident or drowning. In a way, that's part of the problem: since just about everyone has had someone they know and care about be sexually victimized, many of us are out for blood. Not that it changes your larger point about not all sex crimes being equal, but it may explain some of the irrationality.

Jeff said...

Christy, Mike, I guess I wasn't clear enough. Sexual abuse is common, but a preposterous percentage of sexual abusers are people who are friends or family. Cases of sexual abuse by strangers - which is what these laws are aimed at - are rare. Guess I wasn't specific enough.

What gets me is that the most common victims of stranger sexual abuse, in my experience, are preteen/teenage girls. Pretty much every woman I know has a story about some creepy guy following them around. But no one's talking about keeping predators away from shopping malls or movie theaters or other places where teenagers congregate. So not only do these laws ruin the lives of people who are not really that bad, but they also completely ignore the two most salient dangers when it comes to sexual abuse.

I guess my point is that these laws remind me of the TSA checkpoints at airports, in that they're theatrical measures taken that do not address the threat and often do far more harm than good. If we want to combat sexual abuse, we should a) destigmatize mental health services so potential abusers could get help before they strike and b) change our culture so young women - or really, all women - are widely respected as actual human beings. But meaningful cultural change scares people more than sexual abuse, I guess, and so we're left with the theatrical crap...