Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

And next up, how about pink triangles?

The New York Times reports that Ohio is likely to pass a law requiring convicted sex offenders to put special, fluorescent green license plates on their cars. They might as well make them wear sandwich boards that read, "I am about to rape your child. Please kill me." And like the requirement to publicly identify where they live, this scarlet letter would also last for life. (An actual scarlet letter will soon be on the agenda, no doubt.)

The main argument for such restrictions is not punishment but prevention. As those convicted of drunk driving often are kept away from cars, so we want to keep convicted sex offenders away from children. (And similarly, in Ohio as in many states, those convicted of drunk driving must put special red license plates on their cars to warn their fellow drivers.) In the case of convicted sex offenders, however, one really must weigh the alleged benefit to the safety of neighborhood children against the potential for incited violence against the branded criminal.

And there is also the slumbering issue of justice. With each passing year (or at least, each election cycle) lawmakers increase the punishment for convicted sex offenders... and indeed, for all felonies. The prison population in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1980, and we now have the largest prison population in the world, both in absolute terms (over 2 million) and per capita (0.7%) . (For more, see a 2003 report by the British Home Office.) The U.S. now beats Russia and China hands down, though, to be fair, China executes several thousand more than we do each year, which does cut down the incarceration numbers a bit.

Has the U.S. truly become such a crime-ridden hellhole that we must imprison more people than anywhere else in the world, at a greater rate than at any time in history? If so, the policy is a self-evident failure anyway. Or have we just lost all sense of proportion, all sense of when the punishment fits the crime? Will political expedience continue to trump justice? Or is there still a point where we can say enough is enough?

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

As a convicted sex offender in Virginia I can tell you that to have the rules and requirements changing so much and so fast is a great deal of stress.

I was convicted in 1990 for an offense that took place in 1986. I had already been charged in a military court but the case was thrown out. It was then picked up in a civilian court that sentenced me to six months with credit for time served. This came about as I had been in treatment since I was originally charged in the military.

I have gone from no registration, to registration but not on the web site, to registration and on the web site, back to registration but not on the web site, back to registration and on the website, then to registration every 90 days and on the website, to registration every 90 days on the website along with work address and visits to my work and home twice a year each.

I have no delusions to why I am on the website. Its because I chose to sexually molest my stepdaughter. But where does it end? What else can I do but not reoffend, have a job, a place to live and be a productive member of society? As it is I am constant fear of being fired or attacked on the street. I have already been attacked once.

I have a fear that eventually I will jobless and homeless. What do i do then? Walk up to the jail and ask to be taken in so I dont die on the street?

Dr. Strangelove said...

Thank you for your comment. Justice is not served by inconsistent regulations... nor by forcing ex-convicts to live in fear for the rest of their lives. Justice requires both strong punishment and efforts at prevention, but there must also be room for rehabilitation.

You ask, "What else can I do but not reoffend...?" U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics (1997) indicate that, within 3 years of release, approximately 5% of sex offenders were re-arrested for a similar crime. Longer-scope studies indicate the lifetime recidivism rate is 13-19%. With this record, restrictions on ex-convicts certainly are appropriate, but I have to think we can do a better job of protecting the public without so powerfully hindering the majority of sex offenders who wish to become productive members of society. The proposed Ohio legislation in particular seems badly balanced in this way.

USWest said...

I thank our contributor for coming forward to post.

I keep thinking of the story of Jean Valjean in Hugo's " Les Miserables". He was convicted for stealing bread to feed his family. And when released, he was forced to carry papers that indicated his status and an ex-con.

I understand that stealing bread and sex crimes are worlds apart. However, there use to be a principle in this country that once an offender paid his debt to society, he/she'd get to go free. Of course, such a principle pre-supposes that rehabilitation has taken place.

My other question: what is a "sex offender" exactly? There is a big difference in my mind between molesting a 5 year old and getting intimately involved with the 16 year old who looked 25. Statutory rape is a sex offense. What crimes stand as sex offenses and how are these crimes defined? Do these things vary from state to state?

Not all sex offenses are equal. Not only do we fail to rehabilitate, we paint with a very broad brush. And we don't question our assumptions about who "sex offenders" really are. And, from the sociological point of view we don't ask what we as a society are doing to contribute to the creation of a sex offender. What are we not seeing or understanding?

We are becoming very intolerant as a society. We are told to be afraid of everyone and everything. I always thought that one of the great things about America was that people were allowed to start over. It was acceptable to make mistakes, pay the price, and move on. This is no longer the case. So no one really takes responsibility for anything because the stakes are suddenly so high.

Raised By Republicans said...

US West raises a good point. As we continue to retroactively increase the penalty for this class of crimes, we are also expanding it's definition to include crimes that didn't use to cary such harsh penalties.

And it's going local too. In some states local governments are actually forbidding convicted sex-criminals from living within the city limits. I think those laws are being challenged but you can well imagine the ultimate result if the laws are upheld.

Dr. S. I'm curious about the recitivism rates for other crimes. Are sex-criminals more or less likely to re-offend?

The Law Talking Guy said...

The crime that Anonymous confesses to here is abhorrent. The following discussion is not meant to diminish that comment.

Horror is not the basis for our criminal justice system. Last month, I served on a jury in a murder trial. I was elected foreman, and helped guide us to a verdict none of us wanted: guilty of murder in the first degree. It took us days of deliberation and heartache. Most of us realized that there was nothing affirmatively good about sending a 20-year-old kid to jail for the rest of his natural life, whether or not he was guilty. Nothing we did could bring back the dead victim. We had to convict because that is the law, and no society can ignore murder. But I wished that the sentence thereafter imposed on him could have been something other than simply punishment. It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. And, as foreman, I had to sign my name to the verdict and hand over this man's doom in front of his face. He will be eligible for parole in 25 years. I hope someone attempts rehabilitation.

Where a criminal is not locked up forever and thrown away, refusal to attempt rehabilitation for the person who will inevitably be released into the public is simply asinine.

Mr. Anonymous here has been permitted to rejoin society. It is surely a mistake for the state to make that transition as difficult as possible. Adding punishments after sentencing is also fundamentally unfair. Imagine the outcry if all persons given parking tickets in the last six years were suddenly ordered to pay an extra $100. It teaches the offender that the law is not fair, exactly the wrong lesson.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Statistics on recidivism for violent offenses are distressingly hard to find. Specific statistics on sex offenses is easier to find. I am not sure why this should be.

USWest said...

I am suspicious of crime stats because they are not collected or gathered in a standardized way.