Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On Sex Offenders

Sex offender legislation is in serious need of revision but the kind of revision it needs is impossible for any politician ever planning to seek reelection to implement. After all, a politician can never go wrong with "harsher punishment for sex offenders", but the reverse? Political suicide.

Let me be perfectly clear. In straight-forward cases of sexual violence and child molestation, where guilt can be determined beyond a shadow of a doubt, I am for the harshest of punishments. Jail sentences coupled with removal of the genitals would suit me fine. However, the laws at present, which vary greatly from state to state, often fail to make vital distinctions between what I would consider to be highly criminal, highly immoral, highly dangerous behavior and behavior that is relatively benign and hardly criminal at all.

I am personally familiar with a couple of individuals who met the silly end of the sex offender laws. The most ludicrous example is the 14-year old son of a friend of mine who was charged with statutory rape for having "consensual" sex with his 14-year old girlfriend. Just to be fair, the police charged her with raping him as well. Another example is a young man I met shortly after he was released from serving 2 years in prison. His crime? He had a one-night stand with a girl he met in a bar. Turns out the girl was 17. He was 24. According to the law, it is the burden of the "adult" to verify the age of their sexual partners... even if you meet them in a bar, even if they lie to you, even if they have a fake ID... In my view, neither of these individuals are criminals. They are, at worst, guilty of behaving foolishly.

Sex crimes involving minors present a particular challenge because they require us to draw lines in the sand when it's hardly clear where the line should be drawn. When does childhood end and and adulthood begin? At what point can a person "consent" to sexual contact? Is age difference important? I like age 16 as an official "age of consent" for most sexual behavior. I know that many will argue that 16 is too young, that girls will be taken advantage of at this age. Yes, they will. However, the possibility of being taken advantage of is life-long. People must be allowed to take responsibility for their own decisions at some point and 16 strikes me as a reasonable age. If we left the age of consent up to fathers of daughters, it would probably be set at age 35 or upon marriage to a man of the father's approval. Ages below the official age of consent must be sub-divided as well. Non-violent sex crimes with adolescents should not be treated the same as sexual contact with pre-pubescent children.

The Human Rights Watch web site lists a number of non-violent "crimes" that require registration as a sex offender, including public urination, public nudity (keep in mind that this may include "mooning") and consensual sex between teenagers. The site also relays the story of a high school student who was arrested after flashing a group of freshman girls at his school. He spent 4 months in jail and was released with a 10-year sex offender registration, which made it difficult for him to find work and caused him to flee his community because of the "stigma" before finally committing suicide a month before his 20th birthday. I refuse to pin his suicide on anyone but himself. But a 4-month jail sentence and-10 year sex offender registration which hinders one's attempts to live a normal life is an absurd punishment for a harmless prank. As far as I'm concerned, 80 hours of community service would've been ample punishment. Then this kid could have finished school, gotten a job, and been, quite possibly, a model citizen for the rest of his life.

The length of time that a sex offender must be registered varies from state to state and often depends on the crime. Sometimes the registration lasts a lifetime. Registered sex offenders generally may not live within a certain distance of schools, sometimes within a distance of school bus stops. This may mean that if a registered sex offender has children, he may not take them to school, attend student-teacher meetings or walk them to the bus stop. Sex offenders are often ineligible to become licensed to practice law, medicine, etc. Furthermore, routine background checks run by potential employers will reveal a sex offender status and may prevent individuals from being hired. And, if someone is a registered sex offender, someone in their community is bound to find out, gossip about it, and then everyone will know.

At present, sex offender registration muddies the water by having a number of people registered for crimes that present no real threat to the community. The common misunderstanding is that a "registered sex offender" is going to be someone who has a: forced himself sexually on a woman or b: molested a child, and it's just not true. By lumping the comparatively innocent "offenders" in with the truly dangerous, we are being unjust and wasting resources that could be used to address the real problems.

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