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.


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.