April 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

I recently listened to a fascinating discussion on Patt Morrison’s show on NPR (I usually don’t plug programs but she is one of the best interviewers in all media today) concerning a recent law passed by Orange County supervisors preventing sex offenders from entering public parks and beaches. This continues a recent trend by the local government in southern California and other municipalities around the country which is making life more and more restrictive for these people. A registered sex offender would need to obtain permission from the local sheriff in order to enter certain areas. A registered sex offender actually called the program, complaining about the fact that, although he owned a boat that was docked by one of the beaches, he wouldn’t be able to use it without first visiting the local police station to gain written allowance.

This issue, which has probably had to be faced by every community large or small at some point in human history, is one of the most difficult to solve. It very well may be insoluble. There are different kinds of sexual offenses. Even the most passionate protector of the innocent would have to admit that a 30 year-old man having consentual sex with a 15 year-old girl cannot be compared to a child molester, yet this law would not discriminate between the two. I am a fervent believer in communities being notified of convicted child abusers crossing their thresholds, yet should the same apply to the aforementioned person convicted of statutory rape?

The system of ‘justice’ and incarceration that has been adopted in this country is broken, not to say anything of matters of the death penalty, a topic which could take up twenty columns. Rehabilitation has become a catchphrase, living only in our imaginations while every year thousands of ex-convicts emerge from prison with no prospects and in an enhanced state of bitterness and powerlessness. But even considering these enormous problems, is there not a responsibility on the part of society to fully embrace the notion of a person paying their debt to it? Or should we see prison as a temporary resting place for some offenders who will never be completely allowed to move forward with their lives?

This question, and an attempt on our part as a society to answer it, should not preclude us from being as careful as possible when it comes to reintroducing child sex offenders back into our communities. The price is too high. Can these people be treated to the point where we could be certain that they will not reoffend? I don’t think so; that is a debate within psychiatric circles which rages on. I believe that in those cases, one of the debts that the offender must pay is that they can never be allowed to move about within a community without full notification, in whatever form that may take. Yes, it seems harsh, but that is part of the price they must pay for committing atrocities.

But what of the hysterical environment in which our children grow up, where they become victim of skewed priorities? We live in a world where children are obsessively taught “not to talk to strangers”, or to be in places like parks alone. While it would seem fairly inarguable to teach children not to wander into empty public spaces alone, statistics on child sex abuse should stun us into changing our perspective on this issue. Recent studies have shown that 84% of child sexual abuse occurs in a residence, and an even higher percentage of those assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. Strangers and public places make up just a tiny part of this problem. Further pushing to the fringes large amounts of offenders who are not pedophiles not only does not address the problem, it exacerbates it.

A deep sense of isolation and powerlessness will only open the door for people to prey on the defenseless and innocent. If we are to hold true to our principles as a supposedly compassionate and peace-loving society, we must be prepared to pay for those who are a danger to us, either through lifelong incarceration or through greater treatment and/or supervision. The only way that is possible is if we’re able to tackle the issue with common sense and intelligence. Lumping all sex offenders into one basket only increases the threat. People who are mistreated, especially convicted criminals attempting to rebuild their lives, do not end up ‘respecting’ those who unfairly banish them to the fringes. In most cases they wish to get even and often act out as a release valve for that desire.

One major step would be to move away from the current heightened, repressive attitude toward sexual expression, which has created the resultant opposing force which can be seen every day in our oversexualized internet, movies, music and television. If we were to view sexual relations between two consentual people as something other than illicit, we might be able to better address the problem of teenagers sleeping with much older adults, a dynamic that in the vast majority of cases we would call unhealthy and potentially destructive. But that cannot be confused with non-consentual abuse of children, and until we begin to discriminate between the two, we will not only be unable to better address the problem, but also find ourselves in confusion when it comes to meting out punishment and restrictions on the movement of these people within our communities.

The door to reintegration must be wide open to those who have proven to us that they can walk through it alone, and we must be prepared to be give them another chance, free of restrictive and punitive laws governing their existence. The rest? They will either have to live with walking through under watchful, vigilant and even eternally suspicious eyes, or stay in the darkness forever. The law recently passed in Orange County brings us no closer to clarity.


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