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, 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.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

lessons to be learned from teens charged with child porn felonies

In Bellevue NE, four teens and an adult have been charged with child pornography crimes. The article says the 20-year-old set up "an account online" and then lured a 17-year-old girl to send him sexually explicit photos of herself. The images were then passed around among the four teens.

Definitely nasty behavior, if this is truly what happened. The article gives very few details.

Amie Konwinski, of Smart Girl Style, was interviewed for the story and she has advice for parents.
Konwinski said it's a relatively new story but it's one she's heard before. Konwinski teaches teens and parents about the power of social media. 
"We really need to tell our kids that hey, this is a thing. Predatory sextortion is a possibility, and how easy it is for somebody to create a fake account and ask those girls for those pics," Konwinski said.
Predatory sextortion might be a thing but getting charged with a felony is a thing that might be more likely to happen and will do as much if not more damage to the teens involved. Konwinski ought to be educating teens and their parents about felony charges that can result from what teens see as private behavior.
Konwinski said parents need to have conversations with their children and keep an eye on their social media. She said one way to do this is making sure teens can't download apps without parental permission and to be aware that they may have accounts they don't want the parents to see. 
This is ridiculous advice. Teens using social media for private communication that may include intimate photos--no matter how unwise that is--need to know the dangers involved. They could be arrested, go to prison, and be on the sex offender registry for the rest of their lives.
"Parents need to sit down and say, 'Hey, what's your secret Instagram account?' And see what your kid says. If their eyes get big, you got them there," Konwinski said.
Well, there you go. Now that you know they have a secret account, you got them there. What are you going to do with that information? Parents who do not already know how easily kids can set up accounts without telling Mom and Dad are way behind in the game.

Instead of gotcha questions for teens about secret Instagram accounts, parents must educate kids about how impulsive behavior can be charged as a felony, how easily those crimes can be discovered, and the terrible weight of the punishment that can follow.

Instead of clinging to the belief that child porn always means unspeakable images of toddlers, parents need to tell kids that child porn can include images of teens who are definitely not children. Barring developmental issues, a 17-year-old is not a child.

Instead of teaching them the usual lesson that social media can be used to harm girls, teach them that both boys and girls can be charged with felonies for producing, sending, or receiving images meant only for significant others.

Instead of trying to catch kids at wrong-doing, educate them about how private behavior--exchanging naughty pictures or videos--can land them in serious legal trouble. Tagging kids with a sex offender label will hinder their ability to finish high school, go to college, get a job, raise a family of their own.

Perhaps most important of all, talk to your legislators about how easily kids can be caught up in the criminal justice system and how the laws need to change. Tell them that labeling kids with a label that will affect them for the rest of their lives is a grave injustice that must be righted.

Remember, too, that many families are already living that awful reality. Getting arrested as an adult instead of as a teen does not make the registry a more just punishment.

Tell your legislators that no family deserves to live on the registry. Tell them to abolish the registry.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

when a family member goes to prison, the family serves the sentence, too

On Vox, Dominique Matti writes about how her father's incarceration punished the whole family. She writes beautifully about cruel circumstances.
For every man in a cell missing the birth of his child, there is a woman delivering alone. My uncle took me to my elementary school's father-daughter dance. No one asked why — everyone already knew. While I was grateful for my uncle's attendance, my dad's absence was a much larger presence, a yawning chasm at the core of my childhood. His absence was something we were all trying to accommodate, to build a life around, to cope with.
...his absence remained an elephant in every room we entered. His absence marked us. We had to compensate for it, compartmentalize it, and normalize it. ...
When my father was released, we tried to live like he had never been gone. But it was impossible. His goneness was as integral a piece in our relationship as his presence. ...
Despite the vast number of Americans dealing with it, having a loved one in prison is lonely. I had to deal with the absence of my father alone. My mother dealt with the absence of her co-parent alone. My grandparents dealt with the absence of their son alone. Incarceration has different implications on everyone it affects, and it often feels like no one understands.
There is a stigma attached to having a loved one in prison that makes it difficult to talk about openly. At sleepovers, speaking about it earned me looks of pity from my playmates' parents. At school, kids were amused by the stories. I was a stereotype fulfilling itself, and there was very little genuine empathy for what I was going through. I was confronting the reality that one misstep meant anyone I loved could be taken and locked away in a box for years. I needed understanding. 
Instead I found that many people believe it's our fault for loving the incarcerated — that we deserve the suffering inextricably linked to that love. People think we are foolish or unfortunate.
 And it feels selfish to speak to the person in prison about it. It's hard to fret for yourself when you know the reality an incarcerated person endures each day. I told my father I missed him. I did not tell him I was scared. People on the inside need strength and support, and much of that strength comes from the people on the outside — despite the fact that they need the same. And so the processing of all of the heavy emotions that come with incarceration is largely internal, and largely traumatic; it's largely done alone.
I sat through many callous remarks, many fairy tales about "good guys" and "bad guys," feeling like I was on the wrong side of existence. I was not aligned with the people protected by the system; I was being punished by it. And if I spoke up about its flaws — the traps of race and poverty, the evidence of unjust sentencing, the incentive to take a plea, the industrialization of prisons — I was silenced with nullifiers like, "You do the crime, you do the time." I learned quickly that many people are unwilling to hear about the humanity of prisoners and the people who love them. Human suffering requires confronting — "criminal" suffering does not exist (or, worse, it's justified).
The United States, with 2.2 million people incarcerated, is finally acknowledging the problem of overcrowded prisons. What we have yet to acknowledge is the problem of overcriminalization.

2014 Chicago Tribune editorial talks about how that problem leads directly to deaths like that of Eric Garner, the Chicago man who was killed by police when they arrested him for selling cigarettes:
On the opening day of law school at Yale, I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce. Usually they greet this advice with something between skepticism and puzzlement, until I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you.
The Chicago police may not have meant to kill Eric Garner but in their zealous attempt to enforce a silly law against selling "loosies", indivdual cigarettes, they did. Without that law, they would not have killed Garner.
The legal scholar Douglas Husak, in his excellent 2009 book "Overcriminalization: The Limits of the Criminal Law," points out that federal law alone includes more than 3,000 crimes, fewer than half of which found in the Federal Criminal Code. The rest are scattered through other statutes. A citizen who wants to abide by the law has no quick and easy way to find out what the law actually is — a violation of the traditional principle that the state cannot punish without fair notice. 
In addition to these statutes, he writes, an astonishing 300,000 or more federal regulations may be enforceable through criminal punishment in the discretion of an administrative agency. Nobody knows the number for sure.
Too many laws make it too easy to put people in prison, to put families into the awful black hole of having a family member in prison. As Ms. Matti makes painfully clear, even when the family member returns home from prison, that black hole remains a presence in the family.
Part of the problem, Husak suggests, is the growing tendency of legislatures — including Congress — to toss in a criminal sanction at the end of countless bills on countless subjects. It's as though making an offense criminal shows how much we care about it. 
The Adam Walsh Act, Jessica's Law, and Megan's Law all came from efforts to show how much legislators care for children. If only those legislators would acknowledge publicly that the laws have done more damage than good to children.

Legislators tend to nod solemnly when they hear how families suffer under those well-meant laws but we need more than sympathetic nods.

We need legislators with backbone, legislators willing to risk their legislative seat on behalf of families in their constituency.

I quoted a great deal of Ms. Matti's piece but please read the whole thing. Read the Tribune editorial, too.

People tend to think that incarceration issues concern only those who have someone in prison. Those of us in that category laugh a little ruefully at that way of thinking because we remember clearly the days when we didn't need to think about incarceration,either.

Overcriminalization increases the odds that your family will be touched, too.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

surprised by WAR: "it takes a moment to digest that such a group exists"

The Daily News ( out of Longview WA ran an opinion piece expressing shock at an email they received in response to an earlier story about a vigilante "sex abuse sting." After telling the reader,
Let’s be clear, The Daily News does not support vigilantism, we think local law enforcement does a great job and we should stay out of their way 
...TDN goes on to explain which vigilante operations they do support.
There have been all types of vigilantes throughout history. Some romanticized in fiction like Robin Hood, Superman and Batman. And then there are groups and individuals like the Guardian Angels and John Walsh.
No one can dispute the amazing work of people like John Walsh from his television program “America’s Most Wanted” and we aren’t going to start. Nor are we going to weigh in on the pros and cons of what Curtis Hart did this past week.
True to part of their word, they do not weigh in on the cons of what Curtis Hart did.
What we are concerned about is what happened after we ran the stories.
We received an email from a group called WAR, Women Against Registry.
And then...the belly laugh:
It takes a moment to digest that such a group exists, a group that defends the privacy of sex offenders and is against a national registry.
It takes a moment. Really? A whole moment??
Their entire organization is about educating the public as to how the sex offender suffers after they have been convicted of a crime of a sexual nature and stopping laws that are put in place to protect society from sex offenders. On the homepage of their website, the group tag line is “Fighting the Destruction of Families.” 
We found this quote on the brochure emailed to us, “We, the members of WAR, feel that it is time to stop the cruelty. It is time to reform the registry for the good of the over three million family members of registered sex offenders who live under the invisible punishments of the registry every day.” 
So it appears, at first glance that this group is claiming that it’s the registration of the sex offender that’s harming the offender’s family, not the act they are found guilty of committing.
WAR is also against the reauthorization of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.  
Once they loosened their grasp on their pearls, it seems they did read the email from WAR and absorbed what it said. Until...

In the midst of a re-telling of the Adam Walsh story, they lose all sense of perspective. After detailing the gruesome crime:
The details of the crime are disturbing, yet sadly, not uncommon.
Not uncommon? After discussing the decapitation of a child, they pronounce it not uncommon.

No wonder they are shocked that anyone could oppose the registry! They are completely disconnected from reality.
Women Against Registry are opposed to the Adam Walsh Act. They claim this law harms the offender and their families because they might not be able to keep or find a job, they are threatened by members of the general public, the offenders suffer from depression, anxiety and are teased.
 Teased. Yes, sex offenders are teased. They are also murdered right there in Washington state.
We don’t agree with the public harming, harassing, assaulting, either verbally or physically.
They don't agree with tormenting sex offenders in the same way TDN "does not support vigilantism."
But what about the victim? What about the family of the victims?
If TDN is concerned about the family of the victim, have they considered what it must feel like for the family to hear details of the child's death over and over again?
Is society better served by the public knowing where these predators are living? [My emphasis.]
Now, there's a question a good journalist would love to dig into. Is society better served knowing where these predators are living? Much research has been done on this question, leaving us to wonder which studies will be cited to answer it. Their answer:
We thinks [sic] so and, as parents, we appreciate these laws.
Oh, TDN! You think so?

If that's the best they can do to answer a question easily answered with facts, then it is time for WAR to fire off another email.

Maybe this time TDN will absorb all of what WAR says.

You think so?

Monday, February 22, 2016

Law and Order: SVU surprises me

I wrote a piece for the National RSOL (Reform Sex Offender Laws) website: 
A friend asked me to watch this week’s episode of Law and Order SVU, a show I stopped watching years ago because its enjoyment of perversion–what awful crimes can we detail for our audience this week?–was disturbing. My friend told me this episode, “Collateral Damages” (season 17, episode 15), was about child pornography, so I expected the show to get the details all wrong. Television so often does. 
Stop reading now if you do not want spoilers. 
The episode begins with an undercover operation in which the cops set up a popular local celebrity so that he will commit a sex crime against an undercover cop posing as a girl “almost 16 years old.” In a bare few minutes, the celebrity meets the “teen,” tells her she is a bombshell, gives her alcohol, convinces her to pose topless for him, photographs her, and begins to unbuckle his belt. That’s when the cops move in to arrest him for producing child pornography and for attempted rape of a child. 
I rolled my eyes and settled in for more simplistic nonsense. Then the show gets interesting. 
The celebrity makes a deal to help the cops nail a “pedophile ring” in exchange for a lighter sentence. (The word “pedophile” is tossed around in the show in a facile way that makes it obvious the writers did not bother checking the definition.) He provides information that helps the cops identify IP addresses, and they move in to arrest several men. In a twist, one of the members of the pedophile ring turns out to be one of their own, the Deputy Commissioner no one likes. 
The Deputy Commissioner’s wife, though, is well-liked, and her work as a children’s advocate attorney is respected. She and her husband have two children. 
We watch as their home fills up with cops. We watch the cops take the husband and father away. We watch the confusion of the wife and kids. We watch as they are told to go to a hotel so the cops can search the apartment. 
I wasn’t rolling my eyes anymore. My heart was pounding. I remember this. 
I remember the chaos, the anger, the fear, the confusion. 
Law and Order gets the bad guy, as usual, but this episode, too close to real life, is not neatly wrapped up. 
To protect the children from the media firestorm, they are sent to live with grandparents. The wife is told to take leave of absence from her job. She moves to a hotel to avoid the press. 
The husband tries to kill himself. The wife wonders how she could have missed seeing that her husband was sick. 
The celebrity who actually did sexually assault kids? He will serve about six months. 
The Deputy Commissioner heads to prison for four years as part of a plea deal that includes heavy duty treatment and registration. His anguish and shame and self-disgust is obvious. This time it is clear that he, while disliked by the cops and while guilty of looking at child porn, is also a beloved father and husband. 
A good man whose family will suffer because of what he did. And his family is my family: collateral damage.
When TV shows begin to show the inequities in the criminal justice system and the effect on the families involved, change is on the way.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

NY registry is 20 years old; offenders leaving the list

What can we learn from what is happening in New York state? The headline says,"Thousands of NY state sex offenders due to disappear from public registry".
State law requiring Level 1 offenders to report their whereabouts to the registy for a 20-year period was up Jan. 1, News 12 Long Island reports. The law took effect in 1996.
What a relief for those thousands of offenders and their families!
Laura Ahearn of the Long Island advocacy group Parents of Megan’s Law told the station about 60 to 70 Level 1 sex offenders in Nassau and Suffolk alone will come off the registry this year.
“We have a stack of Level 1 offenders that have committed serious offenses against young children — as young as 2 years old — and they are going to be dropping off that registry,” Ahearn told CBS New York. 
The Level 1 designation can include child molestation, rape in the first degree and sodomy, according to the station.
Serious crimes, certainly. Those serious crimes landed those thousands of offenders on the registry for 20 years on top of any sentence they were given by the court.

If only Laura Ahern had taken this letter to heart.

More from FoxNews:
Long Island Republican Dean Murray has introduced a bill in the Assembly that would extend the 20-year requirement to 30 years.
Is Assemblyman Murray perhaps...running for re-election? Why, yes. Yes, he is. At the link:
Dean believes in common sense, bi-partisan solutions to cut job-killing taxes to make it easier for Long Islanders to live, work and raise their families.
For someone who wants to make it easier for Long Islanders to live, work and raise their families, he is introducing a bill that will do the opposite for thousands. An Assemblyman represents everyone in his district, including any registered citizens and their families.

Why should those thousands of offenders get another ten years on the registry? Have a large number of those thousands committed new sex crimes? Statistically,we know that is highly unlikely.

That could explain why the Assemblyman makes no mention of those new sex crimes.

Congratulations to those in New York who no longer need to worry about registration.