Wednesday, May 29, 2013

protect the children

Protect the Children is a great slogan, almost impossible to argue against. No sane person wants to argue  that we should torment children. What kind of person would think that way?

As it turns out, every defense of the sex offender registry is an argument to torment children. It's tricky, though, because the defense of the registry is tucked inside the unassailable Protect the Children slogan.
...Human Rights Watch released the results of an exhaustive new study on the long-term impact of placing minors on sex-offender registries in the U.S. “Raised on the Registry,” examining 517 cases of youth sex offenders across 20 states, reveals an almost incomprehensible reality in which children as young as 9 are being added to sex-offender databases, sometimes for life, and often as a result of sketchy plea deals or faulty juvenile-court proceedings.
Nine! Think about yourself at nine and what you knew about sex at that age. Of the information you had, and perhaps you even had a lot of it, how much of it did you truly understand? Maybe you understood how pieces and parts fit together but you couldn't have understood how sex affects people, their emotions and their sense of self for a lifetime. Nine-year-olds are simply too young to fathom the effects of adult behavior. How can a nine-year-old understand that sexual behavior today can affect himself and others for years to come? He has only nine years on which to base his understanding.

A child who gets into trouble for sexual behavior and ends up on the sex offender registry not only needs to deal with his faulty understanding of sex, he will need to deal with public humiliation as well. How does that help him? To protect the children, this child is put into another situation he is completely unprepared to handle: that of being labeled a sex offender.

Children who are abused by family members or by a trusted friend often do not feel better when their abuser is taken from them. Love and trust are twisted when sex abuse is part of the relationship. What child can make sense of that? Telling them that their uncle did a bad thing might be something they understand but they are not prepared to deal with the inner turmoil resulting from that bad thing. Children can feel guilt for sending the abuser away, grief for the person now missing from their lives.

On top of that confusion, the abuser is on the registry. A family member, a close family friend. The abuse is publicly known and talked about. Family know about the child's role--a role without blame, for certain, but how does a child deal with the rest of the family (and strangers as well?) knowing what the child did or what happened to him? When a sibling is the abuser, two children are tormented. Putting the abuser on the registry does not help matters for the rest of the family; it introduces more heartache.

With a parent on the registry to protect the children, the child's address is also on the registry. Her house can be searched by law enforcement at any time; the family car can be pulled over for a search at any time. Parents of her friends learn something very private about her family when they find her parent on the registry. Perhaps friends are forbidden to come to her house, perhaps she knows that people look at her and wonder if she had been abused, perhaps others look at her and wonder if she would be an easy mark for further abuse.

The registry is for a lifetime for former offenders even if their names are removed after 15 or 25 years. Nothing disappears from the Internet. A child who abuses a six-year-old will forever be labelled an abuser of a six-year-old. When the child is nine, people might understand how the abuse happened. When he is 17 and asks a girl to prom, a six-year-old victim will be a problem. The older the abuser is, the further away from his abuses--the worse his offense looks.

In jurisdictions that notify the neighborhood whenever a sex offender changes residence, how does an abused child deal with the periodic reminders of his abuse? A postcard arrives at the house, announcing where the offender now lives. Oh, you remember which offender, dear. The guy who did that terrible stuff to you. This is not a good way to help children deal with memories.

What about the children I haven't mentioned yet? Your children. You know...the ones who deserve protection from sex offenders. Does the registry protect them? Nope. Family members who are abusers are still bringing pumpkin pies to Thanksgiving dinner, still whispering secrets with your children. Those abusers are not on the registry. Ninety percent of sex offenses are committed by first-time offenders.

In plain terms, the next sex offense arrest in your town will most likely be at a home not listed on the registry.

The registry does not protect the children. It does, however, make life painful for a very large number of children. With over 750,000 Americans on registries, the number of children affected must be staggering. Abolish the registry and protect those children.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

illusory justice

Murderers have the lowest recidivism rate of all felons. Only 1.2% of convicted murderers will commit another murder.

Sex offenders have the next lowest rate. Only around 5% of convicted sex offenders will commit another sex offense.

The highest rates? 
Released prisoners with the highest rearrest rates were robbers (70.2%), burglars (74.0%), larcenists (74.6%), motor vehicle thieves (78.8%), those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4%), and those in prison for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2%).
That list is in alphabetical order instead of highest to lowest but no matter how you order them, those look like career criminals. 

You know what's funny? 

None of them are prohibited from receiving food stamps. No one clamors for a registry of car thieves so we can restrict them from living within 2000 feet of a parking lot. I've never seen internet comments calling for burglars to be killed.

This is why: Burglary, robbery and the other crimes in that list happen frequently enough that most of those cases don't even make the headlines. Sex offenses in which someone is hurt or killed are very rare so they do end up in the headlines. The headlines and the news coverage of the former Penn State coach (you know who I could you not?) went on for months! 

Because something like that doesn't happen very often.

The criminals most likely to end up back in prison--the criminals most costly to the state and federal prison system because of their multiple incarcerations--return to their homes and families with barely a peep from the neighborhood. 

The term sex offender is applied without distinction. When laws are passed affecting sex offenders, the laws generally don't distinguish among the various crimes that landed someone on the registry.

The most abhorrent sex offenses are the ones that we see in the headlines so when people hear sex offender, that's what they think of. The bland term sex offender becomes charged with all the abhorrence we feel for the worst of sex offenses. Like an optical illusion, our minds are tricked. 

Streaker = sex offender = rapist.  

Are you sure? Look again.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

what do sex offenders have to do with the Farm Bill?

Senator David Vitter, R-LA, proposed an amendment to the Farm Bill currently in the Senate:

[The amendment] would prohibit convicted murderers, rapists, and pedophiles from receiving food stamps. Under current law, there is a lifetime ban for convicted drug felons, though many states have opted out of or modified that ban. Vitter’s amendment would extend the lifetime food stamp ban to dangerous sex offenders and murderers. 
Pedophile is such a funny word. People use it to mean many things, but its meaning is quite specific. Pedophilia is a psychological diagnosis. Does this amendment propose to look at the mental health records of those who apply for food stamps to weed out those with a pedophilia diagnosis? HIPAA prevents that if that is what Vitter intends. Of course he doesn't mean pedophile in its true sense; he uses the word to mean registered sex offenders, whether they are pedophiles or not:

(1) IN GENERAL.—An individual shall not be eligible for benefits under this Act if the
individual is convicted of—
(A) aggravated sexual abuse under section 2241 of title 18, United States Code;
(B) murder under section 1111 of title 18, United States Code;
(C) an offense under chapter 110 of title 18, United States Code;
(D) a Federal or State offense involving sexual assault, as defined in 40002(a) of theViolence Against Women Act of 1994 (42 U.S.C. 13925(a)); or
(E) an offense under State law determined by the Attorney General to be substantially
similar to an offense described in subparagraph (A), (B), or (C).
Put a man in prison, watch him do his time, make it very, very difficult for him to find employment, and then take away federal assistance available to other citizens. Not only that, but the families of "murderers, rapists, and pedophiles" would be made ineligible for food stamps, too:

(2) EFFECTS ON ASSISTANCE AND BENEFITS FOR OTHERS.—The amount of benefits otherwise required to be provided to an eligible household under this Act shall be determined by considering the individual to whom paragraph (1) applies not to be a member of such household, except that the income and resources of the individual shall be considered
to be income and resources of the household.
The best way to help former offenders isn't the food stamp program; the best way would be to make it easier for former offenders to find employment. Eliminating the sex offender registries would be a giant step forward toward that goal. Tell that to your Senator.

You'd think if any Senator would be sympathetic to those on the sex offender registry, it would be Senator Vitter himself since he knows what it feels like to be publicly humiliated because of sexual matters. Vitter's name appeared on a list of clients of the DC Madam in 2009. He apologized, charges were never brought against him, and he went on his merry way to torment those more unlucky than he was.


Vitter isn't the only despicable Senator, though. His amendment passed the Senate today. Unanimously.

Friday, May 17, 2013

the world is a scary place...isn't it?

What's a news reporter to do when there is too little news to fill his airtime? Make up things to worry about!
 ...Fox 42 News wanted to know if convicted offenders listed on the state registry are living where they're supposed to. 
At random, and with the help of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, I selected 30 names from the registry.  During my investigation, I found just three of the 30 sex offenders I was looking for. 
"We do check up on every single sex offender, but we prioritize as well," said Bilek. 
I dug deeper and found out the Douglas County Sheriff's Office only has two deputies whose full-time job is to make sure registered offenders are staying where they're supposed to. 
"In terms of public safety, is that enough?" I asked Bilek. 
The reporter is worried, you see. Those sex can't be too sure about them because...well, you know.
"...we do a pretty good job with the two investigators," responded Bilek.  "If we felt like we weren't doing a good enough job, then we'd have to add more personnel."
The reporter is still worried. So he asks a registered sex offender if the system works the way it should.
"The big problem is that I'm constantly harassed," said Bill who didn't want to reveal his true identity to us.  "Nobody cares about your side of the story either."
Does the reporter grab this golden opportunity to tell the sex offender's story? Does he ask what kind of harassment Bill experiences? The reporter does not.

He explains that the city doesn't allow registered offenders to live within 500 feet of schools and that the state legislature is trying to expand the residence restrictions.

Gosh. Things must be bad, if sex offenders need to live even farther away from schools. No wonder the reporter worries.

The sheriff breaks into the fear festival with some solid common sense:
"There's nothing we can do about the fact that a sex offender is living in your neighborhood, unless they violate the law," said Bilek.
Another golden opportunity! Does the reporter ask how often registered sex offenders violate the law with another sex offense? Does the reporter talk about the very low recidivism rate for registered sex offenders?  The reporter does not.

"News" stories like this contain no news. The oh-so-earnest reporter wraps all of his non-news in worried tones, suggesting to his audience that they should be afraid. That is the entire message of his report. He does no investigation to find out if there is reason to be afraid; he only wants to reinforce the idea that the world with sex offenders--former sex offenders!--is a scary place.

Sex offenders. Boo!

Does the reporter tell his audience that the sex offender registry is an excellent place to find a list of people unlikely to commit a sex offense? The reporter does not.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

there's looking, and then there's looking

A 74-year-old pediatrician in Washington DC was arrested earlier this month for downloading fourteen images of child pornography. There is no evidence that this man produced the images.

The doctor practiced in a poor area of the city for decades, with no allegations of improper behavior toward anyone, let alone children. He had no criminal record.
“If the allegations are true, it just sickens me,” said D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7). Alexander lives near the doctor and said many friends and associates, and their children, had been Dickey’s patients.
“He practiced in the neighborhood,” Alexander said. “He’s been there for years. He’s had generations of children. He was very quiet, very professional, it seemed. . . . Just to think that someone you entrust your children to might have that mind-set. No one in their right mind would entrust their child to a child pornographer.”
Watching child porn makes you a child pornographer? Only if watching The Little Mermaid makes you an animator. 

People in their right minds have been trusting their children to the doctor in DC for decades and no one reported anything fishy going on with their children. So now we're all scared of him? That makes no sense.

This doctor had a long history of treating the poor, charging them on a sliding scale so that the very poor paid much less for medical treatment than those who had a better income. How quick the DC Council member was to make assumptions about the doctor's "mindset." How do we know what the man's mindset was? Mind-reading hasn't come too far as a science, the last I checked.

I know of a doctor who looked at the same images my husband looked at, and yet he is not in prison. This doctor looked at the images because law enforcement asked him to estimate the ages of the young people in the images. Doctors are asked to consult in child porn cases to provide age estimates.

Law enforcement officers can be drawn in by child porn, just as many citizens have been. I make no excuses for those who use child porn. I am saying that those who look at child porn because they are paid to do so are also susceptible to whatever illicit allure child porn may carry. Law enforcement officers (and their medical consultants) are only human. (I am not suggesting the DC doctor was a consultant for law enforcement; I have no idea if he ever did that.)

Ah, you say. But the age-estimating doctors and cops are not aroused by the images! I ask, how could you possibly know? 

Just for kicks, perhaps we could hire a penile plethysmographer to see who is turned on by child porn and who is not. Penile plethysmography (PPG) is a controversial test that measures penile engorgement while the subject is viewing child porn to decide if the subect is aroused by the images or not. 

Did I say viewing child porn? Isn't that illegal? Well, yes, but it is legal for a plethysmographer to keep a supply of child porn images for this purpose and I'll bet he or she has more than fourteen images, too.

Perhaps the prosecution in the case of the DC doctor will be reasonable and let him serve probation. Elderly people in prison have it particularly hard. Medical care is iffy. Not all facilities even have a doctor on staff. Health care--physical and mental--is hit or miss.

For someone who dedicated a great part of his life to caring for children--and evidently did so without abusing them--this would be poor payback, indeed.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

mother's day

As we celebrate Mother's Day, remember the mother who has a child in prison. Sometimes it is easier to ignore her because it is painful to put ourselves in her shoes. Sometimes it feels right to ignore her because, well, look at how she raised her children!

No mother ever held her newborn and imagined that child in prison and yet too many mothers have children in prison. How many?

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The United States! The beacon of freedom for people under the heel of despots all over the world.

More than 6 million Americans are under the heel of the US justice system--in prison, on parole or probation. 
The U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. That’s not just many more than in most other developed countries but seven to 10 times as many. Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97, and ­Britain - with a rate among the ­highest - has 153....
Seven to ten times as many. 

This wide gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world is relatively recent. In 1980 the U.S.’s prison population was about 150 per 100,000 adults. It has more than quadrupled since then. So something has happened in the past 30 years to push millions of Americans into prison.
With that many people in prison, you may wonder why our crime rate is so high. Here's the puzzler: the crime rate in the United States is falling

You might think putting so many bad people in prison could explain the falling crime rate and yet The Wall Street Journal article says, 
...prison can't be the sole reason for the recent crime drop in this country: Canada has seen roughly the same decline in crime, but its imprisonment rate has been relatively flat for at least two decades.
Even after putting millions of people in prison for drug crimes during the War on Drugs, the rate of illegal drug usage has not decreased much, if at all. We saw the same thing happen during Prohibition: alcoholic beverages were still widely available. We haven't learned much since then.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

if you can't do the time

When families of sex offenders point out the harsh penalties for sex crimes, we usually hear some version of If you can't do the time, don't do the crime. This comment  is a good example:
Quick question, was your husband aware of the reprecautions for having child porn on his computer? I'm sure he knew it is illegal and what could happen if he got caught. He took the risk didn't he? You should be angry with him, not with the system.
If my husband didn't want to go to prison for four years, he should have simply not looked at child porn. That answer satisfies the self-righteous but The Most Boring Radical asks us to think about how that reasoning could be used to excuse all kinds of draconian punishments.
We could argue, I suppose, that a woman in Saudi Arabia who doesn’t want to get stoned to death just shouldn’t commit adultery. That a person in China who doesn’t want to get thrown in prison just shouldn’t own a Bible. That a young man in Somalia who doesn’t want his hand cut off just shouldn’t steal. That, in the 1950s in America, a gay man who didn’t want to be arrested just shouldn’t have engaged in sodomy.  
We could argue those things, but we’d be wrong. We’d be demonstrating a limited, immature form of ethical thinking. We’d be acquiescing our sense of right and wrong to the state.
Unless you have been exposed to the workings of the justice system, it is easy to assume criminals get what they deserve, that the laws properly identify what is a crime and what is not. It is easy to let the justice system hum along in the background of your life, without noticing how it works. However, you are responsible for thinking about whether justice is served. 
This should not be the way we understand justice. As long as we keep the mindset that there is no such thing as a too-severe consequence because the consequence can be avoided simply by obeying the law, we are handing our own powers of moral reasoning over to the government. We have succumbed to totalitarianism. And, as soon as we do that, we have set the stage for even greater injustices in the future.
Is it fair that streakers can end up on the sex offender registry? The sex offender registry did not begin with streaking listed among registrable crimes but the registry set the stage for even greater injustices in the future. Are we sure that streaking and public urination will be the end of those added injustices?

Back to the comment I quoted, No, my husband was not aware that he could spend years in prison for a first offense of looking at videos of teen-aged girls. Even his relatively short sentence is unthinkable. 

If Morton Berger knew he could be sentenced to 200 years for twenty child porn images, does that make his sentence just?