Over the weekend, the always-terrific Lenore Skenazy published a provocative editorial in Forbes entitled, “Shred Your Sex Offender Map.” (For more on Skenazy, see my review of her amazing book Free-Range Kids here last year). In her Forbes essay, Skenazy argues that, as currently constructed, America’s sex offender registries “are making our kids LESS safe.” How can that possibly be? I explained why in a lengthy essay on this topic I penned last summer entitled, “Rethinking ‘Sex Crimes’ and Sex Offender Registries.” In it, I made an argument similar to Lenore’s. In a nutshell, if we really want to keep kids safe from real sex offenders, we need to completely rethink the way we define and punish sex offenses in this country because a significant percentage of the people listed on sex offender registries pose almost no threat to children, making it difficult for us to know who really does pose a threat to our kids and what we should do about them.
Consider two groups of people. Let’s call Group #1 the “petty sex crime crowd.” This would include anyone convicted of indecent exposure (streaking / public nudity / public urination); a 19-year-old teen who gets caught having sex with a 17-year-old girlfriend; two gay men who had consensual sex in a state where sodomy was previously illegal; etc, etc. The crucial distinction for this group is that their actions were consensual and non-violent. No serious harm came from their actions, even if some of these activities are less than socially desirable. Now, let’s talk about Group #2: violent rapists, child molesters, child pornographers, and other creeps who sexually abused people (or even animals!) These people are the wretched scum of the Earth.
Anyway, here’s the first problem with the current sex offender registries: Group 1 and Group 2 are all mixed together! There’s a word for this: Insanity. How in the hell did it ever come to pass that non-violent, consensual sex “offenders” got stuck on the same list as sadists, pedophiles, rapists, and other violent, evil scum? Honestly, I don’t know and I don’t care. I just want that nonsense to end and end right now because as I noted in my earlier essay and Lenore argues in her’s, this means current sex offender lists / maps are largely worthless to parents like me unless I take the time to drill down into the details of who was guilty of what. (Even when you do, it can still be confusing since some crimes aren’t made clear). But the public is basically being subjected to a panic attack when they hear sex offender registry numbers or see maps of sex offenders in their neighborhood because the overall number of “offenders on the lists,” or dots on the offender maps, is being artificially raised by the presence of Group 1 “offenders.”
There’s a much more serious problem with co-mingling or petty and serious sex offenders on the same lists, however: It is destroying the reputations of the petty offenders who get shackled with a life-long stigma of being on the same list next to those serial rapists, child abusers, or kiddie porn freak. As a result, those people can’t get certain jobs or have certain relationships because the presence of their name on a sex offender list forever haunts them. That’s both insane and sad.
Another problem: Mixing Group 1 and Group 2 on the same lists creates on strains law enforcement resources. As Skenazy noted in her essay, “maybe one of the reasons Jaycee Duggard was allegedly imprisoned for 18 years by a known sex offender was that an overburdened police force couldn’t concentrate on creepy Phillip Garrido and the hut behind his house. They were too busy with the 100,000 other Californians on the registry.” I have to imagine that most law enforcement officers would rather spend their time and energy focused on the scum of the Earth instead of streakers or teenage lovers.
Finally, perhaps the most offensive thing about the current sex offender lists is this: Why in the hell do we even need a list for the wretched scum of the Earth who are guilty of serious sex crimes! Why are these scumbags not in jail cell rotting away? I mean, seriously, what the hell is wrong with our government in this country? How is it that, according to the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistic, only 6 in 10 child sex crime suspects were prosecuted in 2006 and the median prison sentence imposed was just 5 years and 3 months? (See: Federal Prosecution of Child Sex Exploitation Offenders, 2006, (by Tracey Kyckelhahn, Mark Motivans, Ph.D., December 1, 2007, NCJ 219412). If you are a parent reading that number I hope you are as horrified as I am. It makes my angry. And those are just the child sex crimes. I don’t know where rape sentences currently stand — if anyone has recent data sets, please bring them to my attention — but I know that victim’s groups have long complained of lax penalties for sexual assault against women.
Not to put too fine a point on it but we are talking about here are acts of violent aggression or exploitation against women and helpless children. Besides murder, are there any crimes worse than that? I can’t name any. Why, then, are we letting those offenders get off so lightly. Perhaps if we weren’t putting so many people in jail for petty drug “crimes” we might have more room to house these people. But, hey, that’s another rant for another day! (No, seriously, look at those charts below, which show drug prosecutions and penalties outpacing sexual exploitation. Again, insane. At least the penalties for sexual exploitation are finally catching up with drug sentences in recent years.)
Anyway, if we are going to let such human filth walk the streets, than we absolutely do need a solid sex offender registry to keep track of them. They should not be at liberty to move about freely. But the only way for those registries to be useful is if we either (1) get the Group 1 petty sex offenders off the list entirely or (2) create a new “Scum of the Earth List” just for the Group 2 people. Skenazy was kind enough to cite my “Scum of the Earth List” proposal in her Forbes piece and noted that it would help save time, money and potentially even lives.
Or, here’s a cheaper and potentially equally effective alternative: We could use a hot iron and brand their foreheads “Inglorious Bastards”-style with a scarlet letter (“S” for Scum) so that we know who they are and can see them coming. But I’m willing to compromise: Just lock ‘em longer and then I will put away my hot branding iron!
OK, end of rant. I need to get back to the important business of protecting my kids from the streaker down the street and the guy who got caught peeing behind McDonald’s who are on the sex offender list in my area. Thank God my government is helping to protect my kids from those people. Perhaps one day our elected leaders will get down to business and start cracking down on the real sex criminals so parents like me can rest easier. Because today’s stupid sex offender registries bring me no solace whatsoever.
[Again, please read my earlier essay on "Rethinking 'Sex Crimes' and Sex Offender Registries" for more details.]