The Times Fails In Sex Offender Story

Solomon Moore's piece in this morning's New York Times did less than nothing to advance understanding of the nation's sex offender laws. In fact, it set back understanding. Call it a high-class version of pandering to hysteria.

The headline was jarring enough: "Struggling to Keep Tabs on Paroled Sex Offenders."

Moore's piece reports on failures of parole. Agents can't keep up. One offender exposed himself to another person. Another kidnapped a 17-year-old girl. Another got in a shoot out with cops. And then there is the mother of all sex offenders, Phillip Garrido: He kidnapped a woman and raped her in 1991, and then held her as a sex slave in his backyard for 18 years, all under the apparently not-so-watchful eye of his parole officer.

These are notable failures of a system under stress. But what, really, is the cause of the stress? Do we need more prisons, longer sentences, more parole officers? Or do we need to do something no state seems really willing to do? To wit, make intelligent risk assessments about who is and is not a sex offender.

California is apparently the only state that places all released prisoners on parole. The crime of conviction does not matter. That means 120,000 men and women are placed on parole in California each year. It is no wonder that some of them slip through the cracks and commit horrendous crimes. When the state fails to attempt any intelligent risk assessment and wastes resources monitoring everyone, bad things will happen.

In California, as elsewhere, a young man convicted of consensual sex with a female just under the lawful age of consent is deemed a criminal. Statutory rape results in a conviction, prison and parole. But tell me, truly, are these young men really sex offenders in anything by name? To whom would Romeo have been required to report?

In some states, a person who urinates in public is guilty of a sex offense. In all states, looking at naked pictures of children is a crime. So is soliciting a young woman or man on line.

All this strikes me as the sort of silliness portrayed in the 1930s exploitation film "Reefer Madness." Why, but take a whiff of a marijuana cigarette and begin the inevitable descent into madness by way of all crimes imaginable. We forget now, viewing the film from the vantage point of changed mores and better understanding, that the film was not intended as farce or satire. The film first appeared as a straight up piece of public service, financed by a church group and distributed under the title "Tell Your Children."

We stoke a different sort of madness now. Ours is a culture dripping in libidinal images. Sex sells. Young women vie to become super models. Advertisements in some mainstream magazines are enough to make a modest person blush. Television has the look and feel of cheap seduction. Every where the libidinal engine is primed and fed the high octane of advertising. But let your desire once flourish outside the laws prescribed by law and you are at once branded for life a sex offender. Registration, imprisonment, parole and stigmatization are the norm.

There is something hypocritical about this dialectic: everywhere stoke the secret flames of desire and then descend with a vengeance on each and every flicker of lust. Do we hate ourselves this much?

The Times' story this morning failed to consider, much less ask, the question that really needs asking: Are all sex offenders, much less all felons, alike? The obvious answer is that they are not. There is a difference between a violent predator awaiting but an opportunity to strike again, and desire uncharacteristically inflames. The law's difference between the two is the real failure.

Hyper vigilance creates the very harm it seeks to avoid. When all are equally dangerous, scarce resources are stretched to the breaking point: There are greater opportunities for the dangerous to escape scrutiny and cause harm.

How do we identify those who are truly a risk of further harm? The truth is that we cannot. Every community is from time to time shocked when violence erupts from a spot once considered calm. But we do not eliminate this risk by locking down the entire nation and making the prison-industrial complex the new national pastime.

Shame on Solomon Moore and The New York Times. It missed a chance to educate. Instead, it merely titillated. I would expect this sort of thing from Fox News, but not the Gray Lady.

Comments: (4)

  • Thanks for your courage in writing this piece of t...
    Thanks for your courage in writing this piece of truth. America needs to be educated to know who/what today's sex offenders are. Many lives are being destroyed by politicians and the media creating hysteria. It saddens me to see the number of teens that have become homeless all because of consensual sex with their girlfriend.
    Posted on September 28, 2009 at 3:00 am by Sue
  • It is an American Tragedy when one looks in depth ...
    It is an American Tragedy when one looks in depth at the sex offender laws, convictions, and mistreatment. The vast majority of sex offenders are not predators or will ever commit another sex crime. America refuses to allow them to receive family and community support. I would rather live in a community full of sex offenders than one full of gang members. Give me your sex offenders and I will gladly send you some drug dealers.
    Posted on September 28, 2009 at 5:51 am by DJChitown
  • I too thank you for this piece of sanity. My son i...
    I too thank you for this piece of sanity. My son is on a sex offender registry from a false accusation. Too many don't realize how the accused are fast tracked into a conviction or plea bargain to avoid prison rape.
    The Rules Have Changed to Secure Convictions
    All across our nation, state legislatures have supported child advocacy special interest groups. The following illustrates how constitutional rights have been taken away in child sexual assault trials:
    No Right to Confront Your Accuser:
    Criminal law codes have been rewritten to where in many cases, the child accuser does not have to appear in court and face the accused. Instead, the state can offer the child’s testimony through a video tape made by agents of the prosecution.
    “Hearsay Evidence”:
    Hearsay is defined as “a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” (Tex. Rules. Evid. 803 (2)). In Layman’s terms, “Hearsay” evidence is when a witness testifies about something they do not personally know, but were told by someone else. Hearsay is considered unreliable and is normally inadmissible as evidence against an accused. In child abuse cases however, hearsay evidence is admitted as evidence of guilt. A so called “outcry” witness can testify as to what a child supposedly said to them regarding the alleged abuse.
    “Syndrome Evidence” Is Admissible Against the Accused:
    In most states, the prosecution can have an expert witness testify that the child is suffering from “Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome”(CSAAS). This psychological “mumble jumble” is an unscientific theory of supposed traits of abused children. The psychologist who came up with this syndrome many years ago has since indicated that this theory is not reliable evidence in a court of law. Prosecutors do not care! This junk science makes its appearance in courtrooms across the country daily.
    With Syndrome Evidence, the State Replaces Its Lack of Real Proof with Speculation.
    CSAAS theorizes that because an alleged victim is supposedly demonstrating certain behavioral patterns that he/she must have actually been abused. Unfortunately, a big problem with this and other syndromes is that the character traits offered to show abuse are also common for non-abused children. If the child has been crying, he/she must have been abused. If the child has nightmares, he/she must have been abused. If the child is withdrawn, he/she must have been abused. If the child is outgoing, he/she must have been abused. If the child is happy around the accused, its because the child enjoyed the abuse. The list of factors goes on forever. But to a jury, when an expert witness is connecting typical childhood behavior with indicators of abuse, the testimony is extremely damaging to the falsely accused.
    Posted on September 28, 2009 at 5:58 am by Anonymous
  • continued from website
    continued from website
    Posted on September 28, 2009 at 6:06 am by Anonymous

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