Zoning Out Sexual Offenders

The New York Times reports, today, on efforts nationwide to prevent convicted sexual offenders – “pedophiles” or “sexual predators” in the parlance of panic – from living or working anywhere near children. This story follows on heels of a similar article, last week, in the Washington Post, which focused on Georgia’s virtual banishment of these individuals. And this buzz isn’t new; Talk Left was on it months ago, and has stayed with the story.

Those familiar with my papers about Megan’s Law won’t be surprised that I’m very dubious about the value of these laws. There is little evidence that they’ll make anyone safer, and there are credible arguments that they actually create increased risk. I don’t know if there’s evidence either way as to whether they constitute sound social policy from a crime suppression point of view. Of course, these laws aren’t really about reducing crime. Put in the kindest terms, they are about society expressing its anxiety and anger about sexual offenses. Put less kindly, they are about uncontrolled, and to some degree unjustified, fear of sexual crimes. And put most unkindly of all, they are simply about pandering politicians.

What I do find interesting is the fact that some major national media outlets have decided to take on these laws. True, both papers offer relatively progressive views of public policy. But it would be easy for a liberal paper to leave this issue be. Making the case against any sexual offender regulation is unpopular business, even among Northeastern and West Coast suburban liberal elites. These readers may shed tears for the poor, drug-addicted thieves (who do their business well out of sight of affluent suburbia) but they have no love for those evil pedophiles whom they fear haunt the local parks and schoolyards. Indeed, for most liberal legislators – those who fight overpunishment and stand up for the Fourth Amendment – sexual offender regulations are the prime site to establish tough-on-crime credentials. The Times and Post could follow suit; there’s little percentage in highlighting these laws, except for an honest commitment to fairness and good government.

For whatever reasons, we have not seen fit to slam all sexual offenders (from rapists to petty criminals) with life sentences. To my view, that is good news. Plainly, all offenders are not the same. Some are much more dangerous than others. But the decision to mantiain some semblance of rationality in sentencing has not been easy. Although legislators don’t quite have the gumption to permanently incarcerate an 18 year old high school student who has sex with his 15 year old girlfriend, or a man who is caught masturbating in his car, they’re trying nonetheless to exclude them from entire communities and, indeed, states. It would make considerably more sense, I think, to figure out ways to prevent future misconduct while maintaining their productive contributions to society. That is a tough maneuver, but it requires politicians to step up to their fiduciary obligations to citizens, rather than pandering. Kudos to those newspapers who make such dangerous political moves more imaginable.

UPDATE: Corey Yung, over at Sex Crimes, fears that most media still haven’t turned a critical eye to these policies. I really can’t argue with him there.

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1 Response

  1. RCinProv says:

    The media still have not cast a critical eye on overblown claims of “moral panic” either. As I have pointed out in comments on this blog before, the popular perception that sex offenders recieve long sentences simply is not true in any aggregate sense. Average sentences for these “heinous” crimes are surprisingly low and a significant percentage of guilty defendants do no time at all. (I did the largest study ever conducted on sentences for child molestation.) But claims to the contrary persist and are endorsed and repeated at places like this blog. So I would agree to one point: there is much that a critical eye could uncover here.