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.