The diligent reporter of a local weekly publication discovered that sex offenders live in some of the larger apartment buildings in the city. He went and interviewed a few residents, building owners and managers, as well as local politicians. He was clearly trying to be fair and stressed that protecting the public was important but so is protecting the rights of convicted felons.
But the entire discussion used the prevailing stereotypes which make it impossible to discuss these problems usefully.
In order to see this, ask yourself these questions
1. Who are these sex offenders? When the media discuss sex offenders they never fail to mention protecting our children in the next paragraph. The implication is clear: all sex offenders are pedophiles. But that is of course completely false. Among sex offenders are adults who prey on children and others who force sex on adults. But there are also exhibitionists, there are consumers and purveyors of child pornography, (only a very small percentage of consumers of child pornography ever molest anyone sexually), there are stalkers and gropers, and persons guilty of sexual harassment, and, of course, persons arrested for urinating in public.
2. How dangerous are unknown pedophiles to our children? The threat of sexual harm to children and adults from strangers are relatively small. The overwhelming majority of sexual assaults or molestations come from people the victim knows, their relatives or acquaintances of the family.
3. What are the criteria for being labeled a sex offender? A certain number of people are called sex offenders for quite bizarre reasons. Being arrested for urinating in public will end you up as a sex offender. If a 16-year-old boy has sex with a 14-year-old girl, he will spend the remainder of his life labeled a sex offender. The global label of "sex offender" is applied widely and wildly and sometimes quite inappropriately. This practice stirs up unnecessary fears and hatred.
4. Can sex offenders ever put their crimes behind them and become regular citizens? If arrested, tried, and convicted, sex offenders in these different categories spend many years in prison. Having once served their time, they emerge from prison only to have to register as sex offenders. In many states their faces will show up on sex offender websites with their address and other information. Not surprisingly many convicted sex offenders have serious difficulties finding a job, and frequently need to keep changing their address because they are expelled from their current apartment. A few have seen their houses burned down. Their punishment never ceases.
5. Is that fair? We live in a dangerous world and have good reasons to fear for our children. It is important to know where the dangers lurk. But the registries of sex offenders have to do with more than the safety of our children and ourselves. After all we do not have registries of murderers or those guilty of armed robbery. We do not have registries of men convicted of family violence. We do not have registries of men who have abandoned children they fathered and the mothers of those children. It would surely be important for women looking for partners and for love to know that this attractive guy spent time in prison for beating up a previous partner and her children, or to know that this hunk has fathered children elsewhere and abandoned them.
Scams victimizing older people are quite common. It would be helpful to seniors to be able to check out a list of persons convicted of taking advantage of the elderly before trusting someone with their hard-earned money.
This morning's paper reports that banks still foreclose on mortgages illegally. It would be very useful for those looking for a mortgage to know which banks ignore the laws governing foreclosures. It would protect many sick people if there were a registry of compounding pharmacies selling unsafe products.
But we only have registries for sex offenders. And those registries includes a significant number of persons who should not be punished anymore than they have been already.
6. How dangerous are convicted sex offenders? Registries of sex offenders are often justified on the grounds that sex offenders tend to reoffend. In recent years there have been many studies of this. - “Sex offenders were less likely than non-sex offenders to be rearrested for any offense –– 43 percent of sex offenders versus 68 percent of non-sex offenders. But sex offenders were about four times more likely than non-sex offenders to be arrested for another sex crime after their discharge from prison –– 5.3 percent of sex offenders versus 1.3 percent of non-sex offenders.” (http://ac360.blogs. cnn.com/2009/08/28/recidivism-rates-for-sex-offenders/). Not only is the recidivism rate for sex offenders lower than that for some other categories of criminals. But many sex offenders are arrested a second time not for sexual crimes but for some other infractions of the law. The sexual threat they pose is relatively small
By using a general category of “sex offender” we tar very different persons with the same brush; we thereby do serious injustices. Some of the people included in the registry provisions should not be there. A significant number of people who were in prison for sexual offenses have since their release led blameless lives. They should be taken off the registries. We should drop the general designation "sex offenders" and differentiate between consumers of child pornography, for instance, and exhibitionists, and pedophiles, and those guilty of incest.
Journalists should resist using misleading stereotypes even if that titillates their readers (and therefore sells newspapers) because it perpetuates existing injustices.