Vivid story at Al Jazeera America about how our sex offender laws punish more than just the convicted.
Take “Kat,” a 16-year-old who left the United States with her family for a country she won’t name for fear that she will become a target of intimidation or worse.
Her father is on a state sex offender registry after being found guilty 31 years ago of molesting a 10-year-old boy. In February 2007 when she was 8, Kat’s school district sent out a pamphlet with the names, photos and addresses of all registrants in the area, including her father’s.
It didn’t take long for her to feel the fallout. She was disinvited from a birthday party that weekend, she says. The following week, a friend’s mother stopped her daughter from talking to Kat on the street and told her never again to go near Kat or her house. From that point forward, she lost nearly all her friends, she says.
When she hit middle school in fall 2009, the isolation turned into sexual harassment. Boys would approach her in the hall and on the street with lewd suggestions, she says. …
After more isolation and bullying, in March 2013 the family uprooted and left the country. The neighborhood they live in now is poor and dirty, Kat says. But “unlike at home,” she adds, “people here treat us with respect.”
And Kat is hardly alone.
The only quantitative study to date suggests how serious those consequences may be. In the American Journal of Criminal Justice in January 2009, researchers Jill Levenson and Richard Tewksbury reported on their survey of nearly 600 immediate family members of registrants. More than 20 percent said they had to move out of a rental because their landlord found their relative’s name on the registry, and 40 percent said they found it hard to find an affordable place to live.
Respondents said that their kids didn’t fare well either. Two-thirds reported that their children felt left out of activities because of their parent’s status, more than three-quarters said their children were depressed, and almost half reported that their children were harassed . . . While 44 percent of the 2009 study respondents said they’d been threatened or harassed by neighbors, 7 percent said they’d actually been assaulted or injured . . .
Two new qualitative studies provide more backing for the 2009 study findings. From 2010 to 2012, a team of researchers from four universities surveyed almost 450 registrants about the consequences for their families of their being on the list. Their report on the study ran in the October 2014 Justice Policy Journal. Another by two University of Delaware researchers involved surveys last year of 36 family members and interviews with 16 of them; it’s still under review for publication. Both studies asked open-ended questions, so the researchers couldn’t crunch any numbers. But key themes run through the responses — children being shunned and harassed, families struggling to find a place to live, wives losing friends and jobs because a husband is on the list.
More important, studies have consistently shown that registries don’t reduce recidivism. And as discussed previously here at The Watch, the notion that sex offenders have unusually high recidivist rates is a myth. Their rates are actually lower than for any other class of criminal.
Our policies on sex offenders have been primarily motivated by punitiveness — basically, “What new mean thing can we do to sex offenders to show how serious we are?” You needn’t feel any sympathy for sex offenders to understand why this is a bad way of making public policy. You could make a good argument that sexually assaulting a child is an unforgivable crime that should bring a life sentence. You could also make a good argument that, as the story above demonstrates, people who have committed such crimes can rehabilitate and go on to have healthy relationships, particularly people who were once abused themselves — and so our justice system should strive to identify those people and give them the help they need.
What we have instead is the worst of all worlds. We let sex offenders out of prison, but then make it impossible for them to them to become fully realized human beings. The Al Jazeera story also mentions a husband and father who at around 9:30 p.m. tucked in his kids, then got into his car and drove to the end of a dirt road to sleep. He did this every night, in order to comply with a law that effectively prohibited him from living in his own home between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. I’m sure that wasn’t the intent of the law, but that’s its effect. And it’s unnecessarily cruel, not just on the man, but also on his wife and kids.
It’s true that these laws make life really difficult for people who committed rape, exploited children or preyed on other vulnerable people. And it isn’t difficult to think about the victims of those crimes and perhaps get some visceral satisfaction from the continued suffering of those who perpetrated them. But these laws also punish men who as teenagers had sex with girls a few years younger than them — and had the misfortune of getting caught. They punish teens who were caught sending nude photos of themselves to one another. They even punish people caught streaking or urinating in public and were subject to the whims of an unforgiving judge or prosecutor.
But even with the most unsympathetic offenders, we should either change the laws to put them in prison for life or identify those who can be rehabilitated, then give them treatment and a chance at a meaningful life. To release someone who has served his sentence, but then impose restrictions that ensure his failure as a human being once he’s out — and that crush anyone who gets close to him — isn’t retributive justice. It isn’t even vengeance. It’s just sadistic. Add that there’s zero evidence that these policies make anyone safer, and it becomes clear that these laws sow suffering for no real reason at all. It’s cruelty for cruelty’s sake.
We can do better than that.