I ought to be grateful that Fox News even hosted a debate. Normally, the mere mention of the topic has folks running for the doors. Acknowledging that the issues are complex is progress. When it comes to reform of sex offender legislation, there is too often too little time given to debate. So thank you to Fox News for the four minutes devoted to the topic on Monday's "Fox and Friends." It was a good first step.
The discussion pitted the father of a child abducted and killed by a sex offender against a man convicted of the possession of child pornography. On the one side, the inconsolable rage of a victim's family; on the other, a demon man who had never hurt anyone so much as himself. It was a debate pitting two forms of pain against one another. But tell me, Fox? Did you really expect meaningful public policy debate by offering a seat on the forum to a man undone by his tragic sorrow?
Mark Lunsford, Jessica's father, plead from his heart. He told viewers that no one in the history of the mankind had ever been reformed by sex offender treatment. This is, of course, categorical nonsense. Liberally translated his statement comes down to this: Nothing we do will ever bring his daughter Jessica back to us. His is the infinite sorrow of a man whose loss can never be made good. Jessica was murdered in 2005 at the age of nine by a violent sexual predator.
Of course, Mr. Lunsford was unaware of the numerous studies, including one by Human Rights Watch, that find America's amalgam of sex offender laws to be little more than an obscene mockery of justice. We've created a body of law devoted to combating stranger danger. Never again, we hope, will a stranger abduct and kill a child, we utter. But the sad fact remains that we know there will be other abductions. The human psyche is perverse, and we cannot police desire at the very same time we appeal to sex to sell everything from toothpaste to cars. The laws passed in the wake of Jessica's murder requiring ramped up sex offender registration and harsher treatment of a sex offenders of all types satisfy the need to act, but do so at the cost of social justice.
Debating against Mr. Lunsford was Kelly Pierce of Georgians for Sex Reform, an affiliate of the National Reform Sex Offenders Laws. Mr. Pierce was convicted of looking at child pornography. He is therefore a sex offender. But he is not a violent sexual predator. When Mr. Pierce referred to such things as the low recidivism rate among non-violent offenders, Mr. Lunsford looked surprised. Rarely do advocates for tougher sex offender laws let facts get in the way of their demand for more draconian laws.
Georgia has been a hotbed of reform energy, with recent successes in chipping at away at the perimeter of over-inclusive registration requirements. Central to the arguments for reform in Georgia has been the argument that too broad and aggressive a set of sex offender laws actually harms children. It does so first simply by failing to draw meaningful distinctions between violent and non-violent offenders. It simply makes no sense to require everyone who has colored outside the proscribed libidinal lines in any way whatsoever to register as an offender: this overtaxes law enforcement, which then loses track of the truly violent. Similarly, draconian residency restrictions force offenders of all sorts into tiny ghettos where the lack of meaningful residential and employment opportunities yields the very stressors than undermine efforts at rehabilitation.
Mr. Lunsford was not deaf to these arguments, but he urged litigation to correct these problems. The courts are a hollow hope when it comes to reform of sex offender legislation. Judges run scared far too often of the rage of lawmakers. Effective reform must begin in legislative assemblies. Those affected by sex offender laws need to appear before lawmakers to tell their stories. I know this is difficult and there deal of fear among those who have been victimized by these laws. But lawmakers need to see the faces of those they are stigmatizing with insufficient reason.
So a word of thanks to Kelly Pierce for a heroic performance on Fox News. As everyone with any sense, Mr. Pierce did not kill Jessica Lunsford. A criminal justice system that chooses willful blindness to this is hardly worthy of support. We need more and better debates in the national news media about the harm our sex offender laws is doing to too many Americans, Americans like Kelly Pierce.