International House of Dan: Are Sex Offenders People Too?

Monday, May 16, 2005

Are Sex Offenders People Too?

I heard something on NPR while leaving Kansas City last Friday and I had wanted to comment on it. Let me preface this by saying that I find child molesters as odious as the next guy, but I am writing this because I dislike mob mentality and due process violations almost as much.

There is perhaps no pariah quite as objectionable today as the convicted sex offender. We make bold assumptions about these people and direct our rage accordingly. But who are these people monsters? Are they mentally ill? Can they be treated? Can they be cured? The quick answer is "no, just look at how often they reoffend." The show mentioned that sex offenders actually have a much lower recidivism rate than other criminals, and according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it's true. Sort of. "Sex offenders were less likely than non-sex offenders to be rearrested for any offense - 43 percent of sex offenders versus 68 percent of non-sex offenders." But then again, they "were about four times more likely than non-sex offenders to be arrested for another sex crime after their discharge from prison - 5.3 percent of sex offenders versus 1.3 percent of non-sex offenders." Compare with 1.2% of homicide releases that end in another homicide within 3 years, as is the case with 2.5% of rapists. If I'm reading those numbers right, if you're a sex offender who commits another crime after release, it is more likely that you'll have committed another sex crime than it is that a rapist who reoffends after release will have committed another rape; but at the same time, the rapist is more likely to commit another crime at all. This stuff is complicated, and I don't like it oversimplified by politicians trying to show how "tough on crime" they are.

That last set of stats is very important, because I think it undercuts some of the rationale for registration, monitoring, etc. At first glance I thought "maybe the lower recidivism is thanks to the post release restraints we place upon sex offenders," but then I realized that that makes no sense. Why would not living near a school zone or putting a picture on a web site make one less likely to, say, steal a car? Perhaps there's something about the nature of the offender that accounts for the recidivism rate, and this point was made on the show as well: there is a difference between opportunistic and predatory offenders. Opportunistic offenders don't plan their crimes, they give in to a spontaneous urge, while predatory offenders make plans and act on them. In other words, there is uncle Joe who gives in to some terrible desire while babysitting his niece, and there's the sex offender as we tend to imagine him: the creepy guy down the street who will snatch your children from your driveway unless you always watch them and him.

This distinction is important, according to the panelists, and I tend to agree. Creepy guy is likely the reoffender for whom safeguards need to be adopted, but uncle Joe likely knows he has a problem but lacks channels for treatment. Many laws in place require therapists and others to report offenders to the authorities, for example, so people who know they have a problem can't get help unless they're willing to submit to the scorn and vigilance of society. If our aim is to prevent the victimization of children, shouldn't our approach focus on treating these people before they strike than on creative ways to punish them after it's too late?

To say that there is a negative stigma attached to someone who is a convicted sex offender would be a gross understatement, and as a result, perhaps our society does not devote sufficient discussion to them other than to say who they are and how much we hate them. I wonder if there is not a better way to protect the young from sex crimes. The panelists on the program pointed out some interesting data. We are all familiar with the fact that most children who are molested are victimized by someone close to them, a family member or friend: why then, it was asked, do we obsess so much more about the stranger down the street than about uncle Joe? I think this is a valid point.

While I more than understand the societal interest in tracking offenders who are paroled or released from prison, I feel uncomfortable with requiring somebody who has served the statutorily mandated sentence to engage in a series of additional steps designed to restrict their freedom. Doesn't the same societal interest exist with regard to protecting our children from drug dealers? Don't I also have a right to know that the woman moving in next door was twice convicted for breaking and entering? I'm not sure where the line is drawn on when it is ok to require someone who has served their time to continue to subject themselves to punishment. If we, as a society, look at science and medicine and decide that child molesters are irredeemable, then I see no problem in changing the sentence for the offense to reflect this. But until we do that, it smacks of double jeopardy to continue to restrict the life and liberty of someone who, for any other crime, would be deemed to have "paid his debt to society." Of course it is less objectionable to place constraints upon probationers and parolees, but whenever someone's sentence ends or is cut short, then that person has been deemed to have been punished. Longer sentences are one thing, it is a very different thing to extend the punishment beyond the length of the sentence.

I would never imagine to have any answers as to how we can eradicate the tragic exploitation of children, I understand that this is an ugly discourse for society to engage in, but we cannot give in to the temptation to simply ignore the issue and shout down any proposal that does not involve crueler punishment for those who commit these unthinkable crimes. Serious problems are not solved without serious thought, and we should face these difficult questions head on and expect our leaders to do the same. Vote Quimby.


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