Is Persecuting Sex Offenders Really the Best way to Prevent Crime?

Last Wednesday, the Georgia Supreme court struck down a law that “prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of day care centers, schools, churches and other places where children congregate.”

Good.

I’m always a little dumbfounded to hear about these sorts of laws. They are intelligible and understandable only as a knee-jerk emotional reaction to the danger of sex-offender recidivism. I can imagine parents, fearful for their children’s safety, being comforted by such legislation, and I can empathize.

But outside of emotion, these laws make little practical sense.

Any sex-offender who wants to re-offend is not going to suddenly be prevented from doing so just because their house is only 999 feet away from a school and they have to move two doors down. If the point is to give police an easy pretext to arrest such people without hard evidence, or to make sure they aren’t allowed near kids period, then the parole system in general already has such measures, doled out on a case-by-case basis (and often overseen by a therapist as well). The “church, schools, day cares, congretate” model, on the other hand, makes no sense. There’s just no plausible mechanism in this law itself for better prevention or deterrence.

There is, however, a very plausible case to be made that laws like this make sex-offenders more likely to re-offend. Simply put, the absolute best way to make sure paroled sex-offenders slide back into their old habits is to prevent them from ever creating a stable, relatively normal life. This particular law would have forced them to constantly move based on whatever businesses or buildings went up in their area. If you want people to stay clean after they leave prison, you offer them an alternative to recidivism: a way forward. Offering them never-ending persecution is only going to convince them that they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

That people refuse to acknowledge this has, I think, a lot to do with increasingly bizarre and incomprehensible ideas about moral responsibility and free will. Somehow, many folks have decided that holding people accountable for their actions means that no one else need be held accountable for the people. In reality, moral responsibility is not a zero sum game: Frankenstein can be held responsible for creating his monster without that admission excusing the monster’s conduct. Once you acknowledge that what other people chose is not just random (a concession necessary for any concept of moral responsibility to function in the first place), you have to also realize that your treatment of someone else can have a predictable effect on their choices. That makes you potentially responsible too.

Preening nitwits like this Georgia lawmaker Jerry Keen would no doubt blame any potential increase in crime resulting from bad laws wholly on the criminals themselves. But this is simply morally unworkable nonsense. If they would praise themselves from passing laws that have positive effects on people’s behavior (like increased deterrence), they can’t then turn around and excuse themselves from the consequences of laws that turn out to have negative effects. You can’t have one without the other.

Addendum: Exactly who gets labeled a “felony sex offender” under these laws also seems bizarre: as the story notes, it lumps a 17-year old woman who gave consensual oral sex to a 15 year-old boy the same treatment as a pedophile or violent rapist. Intelligent lawmakers would have crafted legislation that actually reflected the difference and employed some sense of justice. The lazy “we can do no harm” legislators in this case don’t seem to have bothered.

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6 Responses to Is Persecuting Sex Offenders Really the Best way to Prevent Crime?

  1. […] Is persecuting sex offenders really the best way to prevent crime? […]

  2. mek1980 says:

    Hear, hear! I’ve thought the exact same thing myself on many occasions. Sadly, public policy, particularly in light of sexual crimes, is all too often emotionally led.

  3. oceallaigh says:

    the absolute best way to make sure paroled offenders [sic] slide back into their old habits is to prevent them from ever creating a stable, relatively normal life.

    Perhaps we should sentence society to a mass screening of Les misérables. This, after all, was ex-con Jean Valjean’s problem. And We the People don’t seem to relate to anything that isn’t on television.

  4. Caveat says:

    I fully agree. Putting aside the fact that once someone has served a sentence, they should be given the benefit of the doubt if considered suitable for release, the witch hunt atmosphere around sex crimes is unsettling.

    I dislike those websites that trumpet the names and locations of people who have supposedly paid their social debt for the same reason.

  5. Bad says:

    I’m not sure how I feel about the websites: the reality is that people have a right to know about official court proceedings and outcomes, and thus to know if someone is a sex-offender, if they want. It certainly gets sketchy when it turns into a hit list, but I don’t think it’s necessarily unreasonable to allow a parent to know that they live next door to a convicted pedophile. Serving your time is not the same thing as erasing your history.

    I also think that the problem with what are effectively punishments after release from jail is more with them not being specified in the original sentencing. Parole and parole restrictions are a useful social and even rehabilitative device if used properly, but these conditions for release should be made upfront rather than ever and ever tacked on afterwards.

  6. opit says:

    There’s a problem with getting laws that work vis-a-vis those which make an emotional hit. When the election of government is achieved by fear and dysfunction – and leaders who can’t lead – it doesn’t take long for an always contentious situation to become obscene.

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