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.