Tag Archives: Sex offender

Enemy Combatants

I just heard an interview on public radio this morning with a woman arguing that we shouldn’t treat the Boston Marathon bomber as an enemy combatant, because that would be deciding that there was a class of U.S. citizens who committed crimes so heinous that they could be punished in extralegal ways. We wouldn’t, she said, want that.

We already have that. It’s called SORNA. There are 750,000 Americans, about 85% or more of whom are single-time, non-violent, low-risk offenders, who are denied due process and subject to decades or a lifetime of increasing extralegal punishments because they committed an offense that, in their jurisdiction, was classified as a sex offense.

Michigan, right now, is considering a bill that would make it illegal for sex offenders to “loiter” within 1000 feet of a day care center. (Sex offenders in Michigan are already barred from “loitering” within 1000 feet of a school.) On the surface, I can imagine people saying, “Great idea!” What would those child-molesting monsters be doing near a day care center, anyway, except looking for kids to molest? It is, of course, not nearly that simple.

“Loitering” is not clearly defined. It could mean going to a grocery store, hanging out at a friend’s house, attending a church service. And, the restriction applies to anybody whose crime was against a minor–a person under 18–and not restricted to those who committed offenses against a day-care-aged child.

So what does this mean in practice? In practice, it means that a man who, at 24, pled guilty to having sex with a willing 14 year old and is thus required to be on the sex offender registry for 25 years–no exceptions, no means of appeal–not only has to have his face plastered on a list of state-defined monsters for two and a half decades, but can be arrested for hanging out at a friend’s house who lives a few blocks away from a day care center that neither man even knows is there. It means that, at 44, twenty years after his offense, having never committed another crime of any kind and living as a productive, responsible citizen, after having served his criminal sentence, this man could be arrested for attending a church service at a church that is located too close to a day care center (on a Sunday, when that center isn’t even open). He could be thrown in prison for a year for this violation.

It also means that this man can conceivable be subject to more restrictions and more limitations 20 years after he committed is crime–after two decades as a law-abiding productive citizen–than he was two years after he committed it. The nature of SORNA is such that, in many states, the farther in time a sex offender gets from his offense, the more extralegal consequences that offense will carry. Ten years ago, in MI, a sex offender could not be arrested for going grocery shopping 800 feet from a day care center; it’s possible that, next year, the same man could be arrested for doing just that. The fact that he has committed no crimes and posed no danger in the ensuing decade, and that his offense was non-violent and/or victimless, does not matter. Sex offenders are denied due process and the most basic of all legal principles, protection from ex post facto punishment.

This is not right. In MI, we’re “lucky”: these “safe school zone” laws at least have provisions so that sex offenders can drop off and pick up their own children from school. In other states, there is no such provision, and a person can be arrested for driving their child to school. In Illinois, where the age of consent is 17, a man who at 25 had sex with a 16-year-old girlfriend could, at 35, be arrested for dropping his child off for his first day of kindergarten.

We already have a class of enemy combatants, of people who we have decided should be subject to endless and increasing extralegal punishments, which change at the whim of the legislature. They are registered sex offenders. The vast majority of them are single-time offenders who committed non-violent statutory or victimless offenses. And the left, which is screaming with outrage over a single man who is responsible for killing three people and gravely injuring dozens and dozens more, being treated as an enemy combatant*, has been not just silent but too often supportive of policies that have put 750,000 thousand citizens–most of whom committed non-violent or victimless offenses–into a category subject to the same lack of protections and extralegal punishments as enemy combatants.

* FTR, I do not want to see Tsarnaev treated as an enemy combatant. I just find it hard to get too upset over the denial of due process and basic constitutional protections in one truly egregious case of extreme violence when nearly a million citizens are subject to the same treatment without anybody caring.

The registry and reality

People tend to assume that there are two types of people on the sex offender registry: dangerous pedophile child molesters, creepy men who lurk at the edges of elementary-school playgrounds to find children to snatch and attack, and innocent men who once peed in public or slept with a 15-year-old girlfriend when they were 17.

The problem is, neither is reality. Very, very few men on the sex offender registry are serial child molesters. Very few are child molesters at all. Only a very small percentage of men on the sex offender registry have committed offenses involving sexual contact of any sort with prepubescent children. This is partly because most of these offenses are perpetrated by family members or other trusted adults in a child’s life and so are likely to go unreported and because, when these offenses are reported, they tend to result in very harsh penalties and sometimes indefinite civil commitment.

And, very, very few men on the registry are there for totally innocent things like peeing in public or having a girlfriend who has a year or two younger than they were.

Most men on the registry aren’t innocent, but they also aren’t monsters. A large and growing number are men who, in their late teens or early-to-mid 20s, engaged in some sort of sexual activity with a willing partner 14-16 (or an undercover officer posing as a willing partner 14-16). They did wrong. They deserve some punishment. Their actions should be against the law. But, they aren’t monsters, and they are not public dangers. Their offenses were non-violent and non-predatory, and there is no reason to believe that, having learned their lesson, they will offend again. Statistics would bear that out, as first-time non-violent statutory offenders have an exceedingly low reoffense rate (at least as low as 2.6% for recommitting a sex offense, since that’s the rate for men of all ages who have served time in prison for actual statutory rape, which means they actually had intercourse and includes men who were significantly older than their victims. If we were to only look at the reoffense rate of non-contact statutory offenders in their late teens and twenties, it would, if it followed other recidivism statistics, be even lower).

Do these men belong on a sex offender registries for decades or even their entire lives? Do they pose a genuine threat to public safety? Do they pose a risk to children in their neighborhood?

One thing we need to keep in mind is that men think about sex differently than women. We like to pretend that’s not true, but it is. We know that most men look back on early sexual experiences as positive or neutral, while most women look back on them as neutral or negative. That means that a man will look back on a sexual experience he had at 15 and, in general, have fond memories, whereas a woman will look back on a sexual experience that she had at 15 and feel regret. Most guys, if they are honest, will admit that, at 14 or 15 or 16, they would have thought having sex with a woman in her 20s was awesome. (I am NOT saying that it would have been right, just what their feelings on it would be.) So, a guy who is 24 who is talking to an undercover officer posing as a 14-year-old girl looking for an older guy in an adult chat room to have sex with isn’t thinking, “I really want to track this innocent child down so I can assault and defile her, thereby ruining her life.” Not at all. He’s remember when he was a horny 14 year old, and as a horny 14 year old, he would have jumped at the chance to have sex with a 24 year old (and, if it had actually happened, would probably have looked back on it, based on the research, fondly or neutrally as an adult, not as a traumatic or negative event). He is imagining that this apparently horny apparently 14 year old is the same as he was at 14, except with female parts. He doesn’t know or understand that girls are different, that a 14 year old girl who is seeking out sex from older men is probably not driven by hormones but by more complicated, problematic motives (wanting love, wanting attention), and that even if she was driven purely by hormones, she’d still probably look back on the experience a decade or two in the future as something she deeply regrets.

But the guy does not know this, because nobody has told him this. He has no idea. That’s the mindset my husband had. He had no desire to hurt anybody, or to prey on anybody. He really just wanted to chat about sex with other adults (hence, being in an adult sex chat room, not a room for children or teens). So, when somebody claiming to be a horny 15yo who had slept with two other men she’d met online came in and started talking to him and expressed an interest in meeting up, he didn’t think, “This is an innocent child who I can defile.” The age didn’t even register with him, because at 15 he would have loved to have had sex with an older woman, and 15, 18, 25, 30, 40 didn’t make much difference to him. As long as all of the woman part were there–and 15-year-old have all of their woman parts, being post-pubescent–that was all he needed to know.

I know he’s not alone. I know that many, if not most, of the men caught in these sting operations, especially those in their late teens and twenties, are in a similar situation. And many, many men in the registry have been convicted of similar crimes and are in similar situations. They are wrong. They have done wrong. What they did should be illegal, and they deserve punishment.

And yet, they aren’t monsters. They aren’t pedophiles, because they are interested in post-pubescent women. They aren’t predators, because they aren’t actively seeking out teens. They aren’t violent, because they are only doing things that the person they are with wants or claims to want, without threat or coercion. They are, simply, men who in their late teens or twenties are willing to engage in sexual activity with willing post-pubescent teen girls. What do we do about them? (And by “them,” I mean men in this particular situation, who in their late teens or twenties engaged in sexual activity with a willing post-pubescent teen, not “sex offenders” in general or even statutory offenders in general.)

I think some punishment is warranted. The five years of probation my husband served seemed fully warranted and just (unlike the 20 years in prison he was threatened with if he went to trial, which seemed incredibly excessive). Probationary punishment that provides oversight and accountability to people who clearly were acting impulsively seems like a good idea. For some, a short prison sentence might be warranted.

Therapy is good. It needs to be tailored to the offense, and for these men, an attraction to children isn’t the problem. Most of the time, even an attraction to teens isn’t the problem. The problem is compulsive sexual activity and/or poor sexual decision making, and that’s what needs to be addressed. We were fortunate in that my husband found a great therapist soon after his arrest, who specialized in sexual issues. He determined that my husband was not a pedophile or predator, but that he had problems with compulsive online activity, particularly compulsive online sexual activity. He treatment was tailored to that. Maybe six months later, my husband had to meet with a court-appointed therapist for an assessment and evaluation. The court-appointed therapist agreed with the assessment of the therapist he was seeing, and signed off that the treatment he was receiving was good and he was making good progress. The interesting thing was that he had to sign all of these consent forms at the beginning, laying out the kind of therapy he’d get if his current treatment was deemed insufficient and he had to use the court-appointed therapist. It was treatment clearly aimed at pedophiles, and he would have had to sign a contract stating he wouldn’t engage in behaviors that made no sense in his context (not watching kids’ movies or playing board games) or that he didn’t even understand (not “grooming,” which he took to mean he wasn’t supposed to dress up, since he’d never heard of it before). That treatment would have been terribly ineffective, but unfortunately it’s what many of these younger statutory offenders receive. They are being treated for a problem (pedophilia) that they do not have, while the problem they do have (compulsive sexual behavior and poor sexual decision making) isn’t being addressed. Therapy is crucial, but it needs to be the right therapy.

The biggest thing, though, is education. I really believe this. My husband was shocked and sobered when I told him that most women I know who had sex at 14 or 15 or even 16 look back on it with regret, and often feel like they were manipulated or victimized. He had no idea. I really think the most effective means of preventing recidivism in these offenders is to just tell them the truth about how men and women experience sex differently. These are not, by and large, men who want to hurt women, and if they know that teen girls often *are* hurt by sex with older guys–even if they seem to really, really want it at the time–then they are going to be very unlikely to do it or try to do it again. Most men honestly have no idea about the reality of women’s sexual experiences, and that reality can have a powerful impact on men’s view of things.

And then they deserve a second chance. A man who commits a non-violent, first-time statutory offense in his late teens or twenties deserves the chance to move on with his life, to put his mistake behind him and become a mature, productive adult who contributes to his community.

It’s all about reality. We need to acknowledge the reality of who is on the registry, not the monsters and martyrs of our imagination. We need to deal with the offenses those on the registry actually committed when we are sentencing and treating them, and not with the imaginary idea that all sex offenders are child-molesting pedophiles. And, we need to make men aware of the reality of female sexual experience, and acknowledge the difference between how men and women view sex, so that a guy who is 20 or 24 or 28 understands that a teenage girl who says she really wants sex isn’t feeling the same things he would have felt when he really wanted sex as a teen, and will very likely not experience sex with somebody older in the same way. Our approach to sex offenses needs to be based in reality, not hysteria or wishful thinking.

A punitive people

Have you ever seen a verdict reported in the U.S. media, read the comments, and seen somebody say, “That seems like a just and fair verdict”? Have you ever seen somebody say, when a crime is reported, “I hope that person gets the minimum sentence”? Have you ever seen anybody rejoice when a stranger is let out of prison, glad that that person can rejoin society as a productive citizen?

Of course not.

Because we are a punitive people. We are a vengeful nation. We believe that the harshest penalty is always warranted, and that even that is not enough. We just keep upping the ante and calling for blood. We do it because our leaders have done the same thing: in their efforts to appear “tough on crime,” they have, in the last few decades, increased penalties for most crimes exponentially (while also inventing many new crimes). They have given us permission to think that we are justified in punishing anybody we want as much as we want, and we have ran with it.

We need to stop. The most basic ethical stance is the golden rule: treat others as you would want to be treated. None of us, when we’ve done wrong, wants to be given the harshest possible punishment. We want mercy and a second chance. We want what we categorically deny to others.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we ignore crime, or don’t punish. It does mean that we should seek to give people the lightest possible punishment necessary to ensure public safety–based on research, not on public perception and media-generated hysteria–and every opportunity to go on to become a productive, law-abiding citizen after their punishment is finished.

We make sure that punishments end.

The irony of the registry, of course, is that it is only legal because it has been classified as non-punitive. And yet that’s obviously not how most people view it. Most people see the registry as a fitting punishment for men who have committed crimes involving sex: the attitude is, they committed the crime, therefore they deserve this penalty. If they didn’t want to be on the registry, they shouldn’t have done it. But the registry cannot function as punishment, or else it is unconstitutional.

The sex offender registry was originally designed to be a list of people who, based on their past offenses, would be suspects if a child were kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and maybe murdered. It wasn’t designed to be a list of guys in their 20s who have engaged in or would consider engaging in sexual activity with willing post-pubescent teens. It wasn’t designed to be a list of men who made one really stupid choice in what they downloaded.

It’s almost funny. After hearing my husband’s situation once, somebody said to me, in justification of why he should indeed be on a registry for two and a half decades, “If that had been a real 15yo, she might have regretted her decision to have sex with an older guy when she got older.” As if the purpose of the sex offender registry is to provide a list of guys who women might later regret having sex with.

I am NOT saying that men in their 20s who engage in sexual activity with willing post-pubescent teens shouldn’t be punished. I don’t think we have any universal moral imperative to punish such behavior, but if we decide as a society that these are relationships we want to discourage, we can legally do so. But do we really need to punish these men for decades? And what makes us feel justified in doing so?

We feel justified because we’ve been told we can. We can punish criminals as much as we want. And that is not okay.

People are better than their internet comments

If you want to retain even a shred of faith in humanity, you have two choices: you can either steadfastly refuse to read the comments people leave on online news articles and blog posts, or you can trust that people are better than their internet comments.

I’d probably recommend the former, but if you are a glutton for punishment and have to read anyway, it’s good to remember the latter.

If you were to go by what people say in their internet comments, you would believe that 95% of Americans would prefer to see every single person on the sex offender registry, from those who kidnapped and molested dozens of small children to the guy who stuck a five dollar bill down the shirt of a 17-year-old to the 25 year old who slept with a 15 year old girlfriend dead. Preferably, dead after they’ve been raped in prison for a while. On the internet, if somebody has done something wrong, there is no punishment too severe.

This can be disheartening. It can be horrifying. It can also be really, really scary, for the 750,000 and counting registered sex offenders in this country and their families.

But, we need to remember that these knee-jerk, usually-anonymous responses–in most cases involving the person doing nothing more than reading a headline than typing out a response as they are fuming with righteous indignation–do not represent most people’s feelings, or the best of people, or how people feel about specific cases.

And, of course, it’s not just sex offenders. The internet also hates fat people, parents of fat children, parents of unruly children, Nascar, Muslims, most Christians, Lindsey Lohan, Internet Explorer,  drunk drivers, pennies, and all black people, just to name a very few. So, you’ve got a whole lot of company.

Rise above it. Don’t let it get to you. If you want to add some sanity to the discussion, do it, because alternative views do need to get out there. But, do it calmly and respectfully, not stooping to the level of the internet haters. Make your point and then leave it be, because, “Wow, I never thought about it that way. I was wrong and have changed my mind,” said nobody on the internet ever.

Your calm, thoughtful comment standing out in a sea of hateful cries for blood may plant a seed that will eventually lead to somebody’s change of heart, but you will never argue another commenter into agreeing with you. Never in the history of the internet has such a thing happened, and you will not be the first.*

And just remember that even the most hateful commenter is better than that in real life. If they knew you, if they knew your family, they might not want to hang out with you, but they most likely wouldn’t storm your house with pitchforks. It’s not that unlikely that they’d get to know you and decide that, sure, they hate those other sex offenders (or fat people or parents with unruly kids or fundamentalist Christians or people who want to see handguns banned), but not you and your family. Because it’s easy to hate people we don’t know, and much harder to hate people we do.

It’s just so easy to get down about the world and feel so hated and judged based on the comments you see online. Don’t do it. Know that people are better. And, if you need to give up reading the comments to keep your sanity, do it.

* These are reminders for me more than for anybody else. I am guilty as charged of thinking that 1) I can argue some random internet hater into changing their mind and 2) it would make a significant difference in the world if I did.

Too many sex offenders

One Florida county is posting big red signs on the lawns of sexual predators. As with all news about sex offenders coming out of FL, you have to parse it carefully to really see what’s going on, but on close reading, it’s clear:

This county has so many registered sex offenders that parents can’t tell who is a danger and who is not. So, to ease the minds of those parents, they are selecting the people on the list they think are actually dangerous to children (those who are repeat offenders and/or whose offense was violent and involved a child 12 or under) and identifying them with red lawn signs.

This begs the question of why people who don’t fall into those categories are on the list in the first place, and shows how registries are rendered effectively useless when they are filled with non-violent and/or statutory offenders.

It’s pretty easy to guess why there are so many non-predatory offenders in the county: many Florida counties routinely run internet sting operations, where officers go into places where very, very stupid men go to seek out sex with willing adult partners (Yahoo sex chat rooms, Craigslist personal ads, etc.) and pose as 14 or 15yo sexually-experienced teen girls looking for older guys to hook up with. When they run these sting operations, they can, in a single county, make three or four dozen arrests in a single week. Because, stupid, stupid men who are out looking for sex probably aren’t going to make such of a distinction between a willing 19yo and a willing 15yo, because they are not thinking with their brains.

But, the same counties running these stings and filling their registries with these men (and men arrested for similar offenses) apparently acknowledge that they don’t really pose a threat. They aren’t getting red signs on their lawns.

Perhaps we should be asking why law enforcement is bothering to run these stings when they themselves acknowledge that the men they are arresting–non-violent, statutory, and nearly all first-time offenders–are not predators? Why, when they arrest a man in one of these stings, or a college student for downloading child porn, do they pat themselves on the back in the press for catching a “predator” when, in fact, those offenses would not classify the offender as a sexual predator? These internet-based stings create sex offenders rather than catching predators.

And we should acknowledge that filling registries with first-time, non-violent, statutory offenders makes it harder, not easier, for parents to get the information the registry purports to provide them with. They aren’t all that worried about whether their 27yo neighbor might say yes if their teen daughter propositions him–most parents realize that a teen daughter who is seeking out sex with older men has problems that need to be addressed within the home, not by the government. They are worried about whether their neighbor is going to kidnap, molest, and maybe kill their 6 year old child. Those are the offenders they want identified, and when those violent and/or repeat offenders are hidden between entries for dozens and dozens of men who, when they were 24, made a stupid choice involving a teen girl looking for sex online, they have trouble finding that information.

I think public sex offender registries should be entirely abolished. They do not do what they are designed to do, and they set a dangerous precedent regarding legislators being able to punish people indefinitely for any crimes they feel like punishing them for. (Remember, legislators have the ability to decide what is a crime, what is a sex crime, and what goes on a public registry, and they have no responsibility to rely on research or precedent or even common sense as they do so.)

But, an incremental approach may be most effective. At the very least, we need to remove first-time non-violent and/or statutory offenders from these registries. “Solutions” like they’ve come up with in this county–leaving everybody on the registry but identifying the offenders they think are genuinely dangerous with a red lawn sign–do not make sense, and invalidate the entire purpose of the registry. Instead, this county, and all counties, should remove anybody who doesn’t fit strict criteria for being a predatory offender (violent offenses against prepubescent children, repeat offenses) from the registries, so that they will actually provide information about the people who are at a (relatively, compared to other sex offenders, but still not as high as for other crimes) high risk of reoffense to the community, rather than being lists of men who once made a really, really stupid mistake.