Weighing Risk Is Sensible Sex Offender Policy

Connecticut lawmakers are missing an opportunity to save money, improve public safety and enhance public confidence in the courts. The legislation is drafted and awaits action. All that’s needed is a little push, so permit me to shove.

Reform of the state’s sex offender registry is desperately needed. At the present time, the registry operates on the basis of a series of mandatory classifications in which judges and fact finders are deprived of the opportunity to make individual risk assessments about whether a person needs to be registered at all, and, if so, whether the person needs to be on a public registry. The result of an over-inclusive registry is a nightmare for law enforcement officers: when every act of untoward desire is treated as though it is a threat to public safety, predators get lost in the proverbial haystack. Consider: New York’s Lawrence Taylor, the former Giant football star, was recently deemed a low risk status after his conviction for sex with a minor. In Connecticut, we’d hound Taylor from one end of the state, plastering his face online as though it were a public service. Taylor made a mistake; he is not a social pathogen.

Senate Bill 1235 would permit an assessment of whether a person actually belongs on the public registry. The decision would be made by an entity called the Connecticut Sex Offender Registry Board. Because the state is in a budget crunch and there are threats of layoffs and reduction of services all around, lawmakers are hesitant to fund the board. Yet a few dollars spent on this board could save lives and money in years to come.

Funding the board would also honor legislative commitments made almost a decade ago, and then routinely ignored.

In 2002, lawmakers passed a bill creating a six-person Sex Offender Risk Assessment Board But nothing has been done to create this body and let it do the work of justice.

Instead, the law seems to lurch along, fueled by intermittent blasts of hysteria when a new crime captures the public imagination. After the Cheshire home invasions in 2007, lawmakers rammed through changes in the criminal law in emergency session, without permitting the full public hearing and comment process to run its course. The result was legislation with more kinks than a, well, you know...

We have, for example, a new psychiatric version of accelerated rehabilitation, which recognizes the sad reality than many folks find themselves enmeshed in the criminal justice system for reasons having far more to due with mental illness than criminal culpability. But certain sex offenses are statutorily precluded from eligibility from the program. This makes no sense. We routinely mandate that a sex offender get treatment as a condition of probation. Why does it make sense to treat an illness as a crime and to offer treatment only after a reputation is destroyed? Don’t fairness and equity, not to mention a decent regard for human dignity, require that we offer treatment before we destroy someone?

Not all sex offenders are alike. There are sexual predators who present a danger to the community. But there are also young men and women who fall in love too soon. How many readers here crossed libidinal bright lines before the law said "go"? And does it make sense to treat every person who ever viewed child pornography as a social tumor? There are those who are curious and are then repelled by what they view; some revisit ancient and horrible wounds imposed upon them when they were victimized as children in the form of solitary fantasy before a keyboard. Plastering the names of these folks on a public registry merely supports the mordant fantasy that every person wearing a trench coat has some dark and sinister intent – most are merely wounded and confused.

The law is not well served by rigid distinctions that fail to distinguish the dangerousness from the merely disturbed. Clinical evidence mounts that not all sex offenders pose a risk, and that, therefore, not all should be treated alike. But we continue to tar and feather these folks, holding them up to scorn and tracking them mercilessly in public view. Lawmakers can and should address this horror. The means exist to do so now.


Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.


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