Saturday, June 11, 2016

open letter season on Brock Turner

The story of the sexual assault at Stanford has generated one news story after another and innumerable Facebook rants. The story, with a perpetrator who was an athlete almost certainly headed to the Olympics and a victim who wrote a heartwrenching letter to her attacker, easily draws an audience.

We have seen not only the statement the victim addressed to Brock Turner and the letter from his dad to the judge and the letter from an old friend to the judge but we have seen open letters to Brock's dad from another dad, to Brock's dad from a pastor, to the victim from the Vice President, to Brock's mom from a blogger, to Brock's dad from Bust.com...the list goes on and on.

The open-letter-writers, all vying for the title of Most Meaningful, are much the same: Brock committed a terrible crime, the parents either raised him wrong or need to teach him better lessons now, how dare he blame his crime on booze, and the victim is terribly, terribly brave. The number of people who feel compelled to tell the world how they feel about this particular assault is truly astonishing.

The attack on her is unfathomable...but aren't they all? Do any sexual assaults seem rational to you?

This is not the only--and certainly not the worst--sexual assault that has happened nor is it the only unjust sentence handed down. What happens in less publicized cases?

What happens to a victim who does not receive the outpouring of support this woman has received? What happens to a victim who feels worse when the press and Facebook insist on detailing and rehashing her particular trauma? What happens when a victim hears again and again that she will never recover from sexual assault?

What happens to defendants whose dads don't care enough to write to the judge, whose family cannot afford to pay for a good attorney or who are assigned an already-overloaded public defender?

The emotional shouters and open letter-writers have convinced the world that Brock Turner is the worst kind of rapist even though he was not convicted of rape.

When we let a victim statement or public outrage on behalf of the victim influence a sentence or lead to recalling a judge, we do an injustice to victims who are less articulate or whose attacks fail to draw public notice. We do not arrive at justice when punishment is meted out according to the amount of public outrage generated by the press.

But, you cry, this six-month sentence was egregious! Surely the world can see that, in this particular case, something must be done!

Here is a question for you: Is your yearning for justice confined to cases with sympathetic victims? Are you just as outraged when false allegations of sexual assault are made? When the accused says, "I didn't do it," do you assume he (or she) is lying? Do you assume that accusations mean certain guilt?

Brock Turner's six-month sentence got a lot of people riled up. Who gets riled up when someone is wrongly convicted and sentenced to years or decades in prison?

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Nevada about to blunder forward with a wrong-headed law

To comply with the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, Nevada will be adding hundreds of names to the sex offender registry, starting July 1.

Not only will hundreds of names be added but the method of categorizing offenders will change. Currently, each offender is assessed to determine the risk of reoffense and categorized accordingly. Those in Tier 1 have been assessed as low risk and do not appear on the online registry.

Now, all sex offenders will be on the website.
Under the new law, tier levels are based on a conviction and age of the victim.
There will be no attempt to look at each offender to determine how likely it is that he will reoffend.
Because the law is retroactive to 1956, many offenders already deemed by a judge to be no threat to the community will have to register and have their names, photos and addresses available for public scrutiny.
Retroactive to 1956! Sixty years ago. Long enough to prove risk of reoffense by not reoffending. How much clearer can it be?

People who have lived law-abiding lives for decades will now be exposed on the registry. Families will need to explain crimes committed ages ago, long before children and grandchildren were born.

Registered sex offenders will lose jobs, lose housing, and almost certainly lose relationships because of the changes to the registry.

The interest of public safety is better served by making it  more possible for RSOs to have a place to live, a job, and community support--not by passing laws that make it less possible.
Under the old system, 1,923 were considered Tier 1, or low-risk offenders. That number declines to 1,646 under the new assessment. Tier 1 offenders are required to register for 15 years and appear annually in person at a local law enforcement agency to update and verify their information. 
The number of Tier 2 offenders goes from 2,648 to 1,790. They must report every six months for 25 years. 
Tier 3 offenders jump to 3,014 from 239 under the old classification system, and are required to report in person every 90 days.
Nevada will go from having 239 on the high risk tier to over twelve times as many on the highest tier. Not because the 2775 people added to the highest tier are more dangerous than they used to be, remember, but because categorization no longer takes into account anything about them except their crimes.
Critics argue the law does not take into consideration the age of the offender or circumstances. A bill to try to fix some of the problems was passed by the 2015 Legislature but vetoed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval because it also eliminated a requirement that certain offenders stay at least 500 feet away from schools, parks and other places frequented by children.
When a legislature starts down the path toward bad law, it seems they can only make it worse.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Dear Amy: rethink your advice to sad grandma

A recent Dear Amy advice column was a heartbreaker. A sad grandmother wrote:
My son and daughter-in-law are separated. My son is in county jail awaiting sentencing. 
His wife has moved on and is in a relationship with someone else. She is currently living a great distance from us. There is a child. I love this child dearly, but now cannot see her due to the distance (and other considerations) 
The mom has served my son with papers for full custody. I am so sad. How do I deal with my profound disappointment at not having this child in my life? 
Amy's advice was good, though incomplete.
Dear Sad: Given that your son is in jail, the mother should have full custody of the child, and as the child’s grandparents, you should embrace whatever living situation is best for the girl.  
I do not know enough about the situation to know if the mother should have full custody or not. Being in prison is no reason to assume that the dad should lose legal custody, though. Plenty of people in prison were good parents before they went to prison, will be good parents when they are released, and will try their best to be good parents while in prison.
You don’t mention having any relationship with the child’s mother, but you should make a heroic effort to stay in touch with her. Tell the mother that you respect her choice and that you all want whatever is best for your grandchild. Ask her to email photos and videos from time to time and do your best to be supportive, long-distance grandparents to this child.
This is excellent. The mother, even if she has "moved on", surely needs loving support. Having a spouse in prison is incredibly stressful, even after choosing to leave the marriage. Leaving the marriage is one thing, leaving the father of your child is quite another. He will always be her father.
The child’s mother has an ethical obligation to try to honor your relationship with her child, but she has no legal obligation to do so. Given the extreme circumstances, she may blame you for some of your son’s choices. If your son’s crime is a violent one, then divorcing him and moving away might be best. You need to own and understand this, and always hold this child in your heart — even if she isn’t in your daily life.
Ah...extreme circumstances. Yes, families have a difficult time when someone goes to prison. The muck of blame and shame is stirred up and it takes time before love and forgiveness rises to the top.

The granddaughter has lost her dad, though, and Amy's advice misses a big opportunity to suggest a way to help the little girl. She will need to know that she has not been forgotten by those she loved before her life was turned inside out and that includes her dad.
The grandparents and the mother should be encouraged to make every effort to take the little girl to visit her dad. It may be an especially difficult task for the mother, since she is now in another relationship, but good mothers will recognize that the child needs her father. The whole family needs to remember this. The child needs her father. Perhaps the grandparents can take the granddaughter to visit him. I hope the grandparents will visit their son as often as their circumstances will allow.

It is easy to think that it is best for the child to move on as the mother did but it isn't that easy. Kids interpret events differently from adults. Adults can use logic and experience to understand. Children don't have the experience that helps to make sense of what happened, though that does not mean they stop trying to find an explanation. If they are not given one that makes sense, they will create their own. It can take years for kids to finally understand what happened and what role they played, if any.

Kids might blame themselves for what happened. They might understand the crime incorrectly and think it was worse than what really happened. Having heard all their short lives that they are just like their dad, they might think they will end up in prison, too. There is no way to predict their understanding; cutting off the relationship with the father cuts short the child's chance to work things out.

No matter what the father did, he is still the child's father. No matter what the father did, he can still be a good father--or a better father--when he is released.

The dad in prison, barring an exceptionally long sentence, will be released at some point. He will benefit from family relationships that have been nurtured while he was away. Support from family and friends, along with employment and a place to live, are essential for a former inmate who wants to be successful on the outside.

Acting as if it is acceptable to separate children from parents in prison can do great damage to the child we think we are protecting.

Monday, May 2, 2016

must an inmate confess to a casual correspondent?

Former Subway spokesman Jared Fogle responded to a letter from a woman he used to know and she released his letter to the press. The press, in turn, asked a sex therapist to comment on it.
Indianapolis sex therapist Carol Juergensen Sheets says the letter shows Jared still has a long road to go. 
“He hasn’t figured out what he needs to do to get healthy,” said Sheets.“From that letter, he’s minimizing, and sex addicts or people that have sexual compulsivity tend to minimize, justify, and defend themselves, and that’s what I see in the letter. He’s obviously a man who hasn’t had enough recovery yet to be 100 percent responsible for his behavior.”
Perhaps the therapy community exchanges stories about their famous clients; I don't know. Without that kind of professional gossip,though, Sheets has no way to know anything about Fogle's story except for what the press told the rest of us. If she has ever evaluated him professionally, commenting on his state of mind is an ethical breach.

Her analysis of his letter means nothing. Fogle wrote a letter to a casual acquaintance who took the trouble of figuring out how to correspond with him. Who could blame him for wanting to leave a good impression with her?

Is Sheets under the impression that Fogle is receiving sex offender treatment in prison? While his facility offers an SOTP, (sex offender treatment program) inmates generally don't begin that program until they are near their release date. It would be extremely unusual for someone to be in SOTP after only nine months.

As for Fogle's "recovery time" prison is no place for recovery. Prison is a place to recover from.

Most important, Fogel does not owe his casual acquaintances a confession, let alone the rest of us.

Remember that name, Indianapolis: Carol Juergensen Sheets.

Might be wise to avoid a therapist who advertises her services by getting her name in articles about famous people.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

how does this distressing news affect our fight?

Known for his work on behalf of registered sex offenders, Galen Baughman is in trouble. Again.

At 19, Baughman went to prison for 6 1/2 years on charges that he had had sex with an underage boy.
After he completed his prison sentence, Baughman said, the state of Virginia refused to let him out. Instead, he was kept behind bars for more than two additional years because prosecutors believed he might fit the profile of a sexually violent predator. That meant Baughman could be held against his will under what’s known as “civil commitment,” a form of long-term psychiatric treatment that in practice amounts to indefinite detention. (Civil commitment is legal at the federal level and in 20 states. According to the New York Times, roughly 5,000 people convicted of sex crimes are now being held under civil commitment laws around the country.)  
 Baughman became a leader in the cause of reforming civil commitment laws.
About two months ago, Baughman’s work was abruptly interrupted when he found out that his probation officer suspected him of violating the terms of his release. There were allegations that Baughman had exchanged inappropriate text messages with a 16-year-old boy. On March 3, Baughman was ordered to hand over his cellphone and his laptop. A month later, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest.  
This news is rippling through the sex offender advocacy community. Reaction from fellow advocates and registrants run the gamut from sadness to anger.

How to explain that the likeable guy with a story easily understood as unfair might be having trouble staying on the straight and narrow? His sypmathetic story helped many people understand why the registry was so damaging.

The anti-registry world likes to use sympathetic victims to show why the laws need to change.
But injustices aren’t any less unjust when they happen to unsympathetic people. If you believe it’s wrong to make it almost impossible for sex offenders to find places to live; if you believe it’s deranged that people who have served their prison sentences can be “civilly committed” for years under the banner of treatment; if you believe it’s immoral to let a label like “sex offender” follow someone around for his entire life because of something he did when he was a child—if you believe all that, it shouldn’t make a difference what Galen Baughman did or did not do. Insofar as the United States treats sex offenders with shameful cruelty, it treats them all that way, including the ones who are hard to feel sorry for.  [My emphasis.]
Roger Lancaster, the George Mason anthropologist, believes reform movements would be better off if they leaned less heavily on “perfect victims.” As he sees it, the tactic of using individual stories to build support for reforms originated with tough-on-crime politicians and victims’ rights advocates in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, Lancaster explained in an email, law-and-order conservatives frequently used tragic and memorable cases, like the murder of Megan Kanka, to promote harsh punishment for convicted criminals. Lancaster wrote:
[T]he poster child strategy orchestrated collective rage and emotionalism and fostered the passage of expansive punitive laws. Now some have more recently tried to turn this strategy against itself, presenting victims of police violence, mass incarceration, sex offender registries, and other forms of state hyper-punishment as injured innocents, icons of unnecessary suffering. Upon viewing these posters, we are to emote and empathize rather than to think. I suppose the mold is set: American moderns are really neo-Victorians who need wholly innocent victims and wholly wicked perpetrators. I’m skeptical that we can turn the logic of the poster child …  against itself this way. We should argue instead from facts, evidence, logic, and serious scholarship.
Perfect victims can lead their champions down treacherous paths, particularly when they turn out to not be perfect. Given how few people are willing to step forward and become a face of this particular movement, Baughman’s interest in going public made him a consequential figure in the fight to reform America’s sex offender laws. That fight will survive Baughman’s alleged probation violation, but his arrest will inevitably distract from the ideas he was trying to spread.
It is disappointing to learn that Baughman, who delivered such a charming, persuasive TED Talk about sex offender laws, did something that--at the very least--looked as if he intended to reoffend. According to what has been reported, he has not been accused of another sex offense.

Disappointment, anger, sadness...all natural reactions when someone lets us down. We must remind ourselves, though, that those are emotional reactions. We should instead focus on the facts.

The fact is that only a tiny percentage of registered citizens reoffend, even when a highly visible RSO is among them.

The fact is that being on the registry does not prevent someone who wants to do wrong from doing what he is restricted from doing.

The fact is that being able to see who is on the registry does not stop parents thinking that their kids are safe with people we should be able to trust--teachers, pastors, family friends, relatives.

The registry protects no one and it damages hundreds of thousands of families. We can argue for abolishing it even when well-known advocates disappoint us.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

thinking about Dennis Hastert and his curious sentence

Dennis Hastert, former Speaker of the House, was sentenced today to 15 months in federal prison for structuring bank withdrawals so as to sidestep reporting requirements. It isn't illegal to withdraw cash in amounts less than $10,000 but it is illegal to do that in order to keep from being noticed by the feds.

Hastert was making the withdrawals so he could pay a man $3.5 million. He paid $1.7 million before the federal investigation into his withdrawals put a stop to the payments.

Why did he owe $3.5 million? When he was a high school wrestling coach, Hastert molested a boy and, several years ago, Hastert agreed to pay him that amount.

Jacob Sullum, at Reason.com, questions why the government does not see the $3.5 million as blackmail.
...Hastert was paying Individual A, who ultimately received $1.7 million of the promised $3.5 million, to keep their encounter a secret, fearing that other victims would come forward once Individual A made the incident public. Individual A's receipt of hush money certainly seems to meet the terms of the federal blackmail statute. Although it is understandable that federal investigators decided not to pursue that charge once they became convinced that Individual A's claim of abuse was true, it is disingenuous to pretend Hastert was not blackmailed.
In a weird twist, the victim is suing Hastert for the remaining $1.8 million.

The financial investigation uncovered the abuse but the statute of limitations prevents bringing sexual abuse charges against him. Sexually abusing students--sexually abusing anyone--is despicable, of course, but it is worth remembering that the judge was sentencing him for financial wrongdoing, not for sex crimes.

Federal District Court Judge Thomas M. Durkin sentenced him to fifteen months instead of the probation suggested by the defense or the five years requested by the prosecution.
Mr. Hastert... was ordered to pay $250,000 in fines, never to contact his victims and to receive sex-offender treatment.
Why sex offender treatment? Ostensibly, sex offender treatment is to help the offender avoid offending again. When there is no evidence that he has reoffended for decades, why sex offender treatment?

Is it possible the judge sees sex offender treatment as a punishment?
“If there’s a public shaming of the defendant because of the conduct he’s engaged in, so be it,” Judge Durkin said.
With that attitude, it seems the judge does see it that way. Many of those registered citizens who are paying for individual therapy and group therapy at the behest of courts, probation and parole officers--and, for some, at the risk of being sent back to prison if they cannot pay--would agree.

If I seem sympathetic to Hastert, I am not, even though I think his crime does not merit prison time or a $250,000 fine or sex offender treatment. From an article in the National Law Journal:
Hastert’s work on the Adam Walsh Act was “hypocritical and self-serving,” wrote Gail Colletta, the president of the Florida Action Committee, an organization seeking sex registry reform, in a letter filed by the court Tuesday. She asked the judge to impose a sentence longer than the six-month maximum advised by federal guidelines. 
“Hundreds of thousands of individuals and their millions of family members and friends have to live with the draconian punishments he fostered,” Colletta wrote. “These individuals are also the victims of Mr. Hastert’s actions.”
It is not unusual that someone caught up in the criminal justice system receives an unjust sentence. It seems that Hastert may be one of those cases.

I am not happy to see anyone go to prison, especially not a 74-year-old with health issues.

I do hope that Hastert's public humiliation has made him see how wrong he was when he worked to impose that fate on hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

bad for kids, bad for all: abolish the registry!

Judith Levine and Erica Reimers write about sex offender advocates who use stories about kids on the registry to push for change. Stories about juveniles are often quite sympathetic. Josh Gravens and Zach Anderson are two cases that have drawn much attention to the cause of keeping juveniles off the registry.
...these “new” sex offenders are humanized: attractive, promising, law-abiding heterosexual sons and fathers who made some youthful mistakes and deserve a second chance. ... 
In one way, it makes sense to focus on extricating juvenile sex offenders from the registry. An estimated one-fourth of the people on the public sex offender registries were convicted as juveniles. Fifteen states post the names and photos of offenders who are minors on the online registries. Thirteen of the 20 states that lock up people in indefinite civil commitment—preventive, dubiously therapeutic detention for crimes not yet committed—include people who committed their offenses as juveniles. “The single age with the greatest number of offenders from the perspective of law enforcement was age 14,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 
As Raised on the Registry powerfully showed, with little or no intervention these young people are virtually guaranteed not to “reoffend,” mainly because so many of them are penalized for engaging in sex play—things that, even if not always entirely consensual, are common among children and usually without long-lasting harm. 
There is no question that getting some people off the list can be a first step toward getting others off—and a way of chipping away at the policy. 
Anyone who sees the damage caused by the registry celebrates any of the incremental improvements to the lives of registrants.
But there are also significant downsides to campaigns that construct children as exceptional and different from adults. The public may just as easily be left feeling that adults who break the law are bad and deserve all they get—or that guilty people do not deserve fairness or sympathy. This gives legislators a rationale for trading off youth-friendly criminal justice policies for harder adult penalties, as recently happened when New Mexico legalized sexting between teens but increased penalties for people 18 and older sexting with people under 18. Not just adults but some youth can be penalized by the focus on “children.” Call the person who breaks the law a “child,” and there’s a danger that any young person not demonstrably childlike will end up prosecuted as an adult. 
Exclusive focus on the young offender—rather than a rejection of the entire sex offender regime—avoids the larger, less politically popular truth. “Sex offender registries are harmful to kids and to adults,” says Emily Horowitz, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, and a board member of the National Center for Reason & Justice, which works for sensible child-protective policies and against unjust sex laws. “No evidence exists that they prevent sex crimes either by juvenile offenders or adult offenders.” [My emphasis.]
The sex offender registry is a bad idea for anyone. No matter how guilty or how unsympathetic, no offender deserves extra-judicial punishment long after serving the sentence handed down by the court.

Who could quibble about an organization like Center on Youth Registration Reform (CYRR)? Why not work to keep juveniles off the registry? Why not start there?

When focusing on juveniles, it is easy to sacrifice adults with worse crimes as a sop to those who still believe registries offer some benefits to society.
Such a strategy can invite a wider range of supporters, but it also can mean inadvertent acceptance or even endorsement of policies that are antagonist to justice for wider groups, if not for everyone. For instance, CYRR is collaborating with Eli Lehrer, of the free-market think tank R Street; he is also a signatory of the conservative Right on Crime initiative. Flagged on the CYRR site is an article by Lehrer, published this winter in National Affairs, that argues for taking kids off the registry. But the piece also concludes that ending the registries would be “unwise” and suggests they’d be really good with a few “sensible” tweaks. Lehrer also proposes hardening policies—such as “serious” penalties for child pornography possession and the expanded use of civil commitment—that data reveal to be arbitrary or ineffective and many regard as gross violations of constitutional and human rights. 
In a more recent piece in the Daily Caller, as well as testimony before the South Dakota legislature this session, Lehrer repeats how important it is to punish “child molesters” harshly, and while he notes the low recidivism rate for juvenile sex offenders, does not mention that other adults with sex offenses show similarly low rates.
The registry is useless in the cause of public safety. Let's not pretend otherwise.

The registry does lasting harm to families who have a member on the registry and no family deserves that, not even families of someone who committed a crime that draws universal condemnation.

Levine and Reimers write about the argument that putting so many people on the registry makes it easy to lose track of offenders who really ought to be tracked. Some organizations like RSOL, Reform Sex Offender Laws, advocate for a registry available only to law enforcement. Changes like these could free many thousands from the registry but those changes would also abandon some families to the public humiliation of the registry and all its deleterious effects.

Offering to leave anyone on the registry is offering up families to suffer for the cause of the more likeable, more sympathetic offenders. No family deserves the registry. 
Incrementalism, or taking small steps, has often been posited as the pathway to justice–“Wait. We’ll make reforms now and work on the wider problem later.” Incrementalism can work. Reforms are necessary because they improve daily existence for the people inside the system—in court, in juvenile or immigrant detention, in jails and prison. But organizers must constantly calibrate the tension between reform and radical change, and the dangers of reform without a vision of radical change. By cleaning up a fundamentally corrupt institution, reforms risk legitimizing the institution, often just enough to make it politically palatable. As Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “Wait almost always means never.”
The registry, in any form, is not palatable. It does nothing to prevent sex abuse and does nothing to improve public safety.

Abolish the registry.