In the small town of Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, a level 3 sex offender’s prospective home was set ablaze on two separate occasions. Law enforcement reacted after the first incident by placing cameras nearby in an attempt to capture on film who might be responsible should it happen again. It did. Upon the second act of arson, area resident Russell Speigle was found taking matters into his own hands to prevent a previously sentenced, 40 year old man from residing in the future home. When Mrs. Speigle was questioned by local police, she was either confused about her other half’s visible signs of physical wounds, or she was willing to support her husband’s actions with her own complicity. She reported to law enforcement that her husband’s facial injuries were caused by an “employment related skin reaction” instead of the confirmed second-degree burns Mr. Speigle sustained while committing an act of arson.
The town’s response? To execute a ban on any level 3 sex offender from moving into the town in order to “promote public safety.” No mention of anything other than the likely motive that Mr. Speigle vandalized the dwelling to prevent the new resident from moving in has been reported. The home suffered considerable damage after the first arson attack, and it will not undergo restoration as the second strike rendered it a total loss. It seems the residents of Cottage Grove, like the many fearful and misinformed citizens across the United States, rather than hoping for and supporting rehabilitation and reintegration of those convicted of crimes after they have served their punishment, prefer instead to banish them.
A simple Internet search, “ban on sex offenders,” will reveal that just about every state in the Union employs some form of banning registered citizens from something somewhere, be it parks, fairs, condo associations, homeless shelters, school events, social networking, churches, nursing homes, libraries, government housing, entire towns, and the list goes on. Our nation feels more like it is under a prelude to dictatorship rather than being the home of the free, and this particular incident harks back to the days of crosses burning in front yards.
Mr. Speigle’s action is clearly an act of vigilantism. This proposed ordinance that aspires to ban the victim of the crime, should it pass, is nothing more than government-sponsored vigilantism. We must ask ourselves what it is we hope to protect our society from? Thousands of people with a sexual offense conviction in their pasts live among us. For that matter, 20 million Americans have a felony criminal conviction–and just think of all those people who were never caught. It is inevitable that you will encounter one of them whether known to you or not. Banning people from basic liberties does not prevent crime, and building more correctional facilities seems not to have much positive affect on crime rates either. Ironically, one thing that studies consistently show does help keep former offenders on the straight and narrow and lessen recidivism is a support system which places stable housing high on the list.
Contrary to the very low re-offense rate for sexual offenders, years of crime trend studies indicate that arsonists are a category of offender highly likely to re-offend and resist rehabilitation. Perhaps Mr. Speigle should be institutionalized for a very long time or placed on a public registry for a lifetime so he can be monitored and prevented from setting fire to another home. After all, the public sex offender registry has been proven to be merely a civil regulatory scheme and not punishment. Would that not be a beneficial public safety policy for the residents of Cottage Grove or the neighbors of wherever Mr. Speigle chooses to reside, to know he is a convicted arsonist?