By Chase Madar . . .
Rape and sexual assault often do not get the police attention they deserve in the United States, whether on college campuses, in the military or in major American cities. This isn’t arguable.
But sex is vastly overpoliced in this country, and this ought to concern us too. The combination of steroidal law enforcement, puritanical fear of the genitalia and a constant need for political scapegoats has led to ferocious police overreach on sex. The consequences are neither moral nor just. In fact, they’re frequently horrific.
Branded for life
Sex offenders are commonly regarded as outcasts in the United States. This might change if it were more widely known that children as young as eight have been put on sex offender registries, where many will stay for decades, if not their entire lives. Some of the offenses that get minors listed are serious and (obviously) require a law enforcement response. But many, from streaking at a high school football game to consensual sex between randy teens, do not.
A Human Rights Watch report released last year documented the lasting damage done to kids put on these publicly available registries. Most are barred from attending school and restricted in their daily movements and where their families may reside and travel; their chances at employment are wrecked. Such ostracizing of minors must end.
But ways to punish kids for various sex “crimes” keep proliferating. Sexting is a common teenage pastime, but many states see no legal distinction between this act and distributing child pornography. Earlier this year police in Manassas, Virginia, got a warrant to photograph a 17-year-old’s erect penis so they could compare it to the photo he had sent his 15-year-old girlfriend. Fortunately a national outcry put an end to this inquisitorial prurience. (The young man still got charged with distributing and possessing child pornography and was slapped with a year of probation.)
This unwholesome propensity dovetails snugly with our national habit of prosecuting children as adults as often as possible.
Sex offenders everywhere
But what about the adults — won’t someone please think of the adults? Sex offender registries in the U.S. have expanded massively, to about 747,000 in 2011, the last year of available data. It’s a lot easier than you might think to get put on a registry (for, say, public urination) and exceedingly difficult to get taken off it. But contrary to myth, the majority of adult sex offenders have not committed any offense related to children, and the rate of recidivism is lower than that for other offenses. One federal study from 2002 found that people with no sexual offense history are more likely to commit a sex crime than convicted offenders. But rational evidence is not a part of our punishment regime, where panic rules.
Leading the way in punitive excess is California, where roughly one in every 375 adults is a registered sex offender, creating an entire class of pariahs. This isn’t because Californians are especially sexually deviant. According to Chrysanthi S. Leon, a law professor and expert on sex crimes at the University of Delaware, it’s just because the Golden State set up its registry first, which means that pretty much every state in the union is heading towards this high density of officially stigmatized sexual criminals. That these registries have no visible deterrent effect on sex crimes, according to one recent Department of Justice analysis (PDF), doesn’t seem to matter.
We need reasonable off-ramps from these registries and must distinguish between those who pose a risk to children and those who do not. We might also knock the age of sexual consent nationwide down to 15, as it is in France and Sweden, while considering the German model where the age of consent is 14, but sex with anyone under 18 can be judged a crime if it is found to involve “taking advantage of an exploitative situation” — a far better use of judicial resources than our system of punishing everyone to the max.
There is mounting pushback against such overreach. The group Reform Sex Offender Laws (RSOL) launched in 2007 and has been honing its advocacy skills ever since. Still, according to Leon, who spoke at RSOL’s annual conference in July, the penal winds have not yet shifted — the California legislature saw nine new measures expanding sex offender punishment proposed last year — and vindictiveness and banishment are still our default settings for sex offenses.
(See america.aljazeera.com for full article)