Is It 'Very Offensive' for Sex Offenders to Demand Just and Sensible Laws?



The New York Times notes a recent conference in Los Angeles aimed at calling attention to the excesses and injustices of laws aimed at sex offenders. The Times reports that the 100 or so attendees—sex offenders plus their girlfriends, wives, and mothers—"hope to convince judges, lawmakers and the public that indiscriminate laws aimed at all sex offenders are unconstitutional and ineffective." Illustrating the mentality they are fighting, Nina Salarno-Ashford, a lawyer with Crime Victims United, tells the Times:

I find it very offensive that registered sex offenders are trying to defeat the measures we have put in place to protect children. They created their own issues. In trying to find sympathy, they're forgetting that somebody was assaulted, in many cases a child.

As is typical of activists who argue that sex offenders deserve whatever they get, Salerno-Ashford elides several important distinctions:

1. She implies that all "registered sex offenders" are child molesters, when in fact they include many people who have never committed crimes against children, who nevertheless are often covered by "the measures we have put in place to protect children," such as laws forcing them to live more than a certain distance from schools, playgrounds, and other places where children gather. These laws can be so restrictive that they effectively banish registrants from entire cities or counties. The premise that predators will somehow be deterred by residence restrictions is dubious to begin with and surely makes no sense when applied to people who have never shown any inclination to abuse children.

2. Salerno-Ashford implies that holding sex offenders responsible for their actions means defending every penalty legislators have ever imposed for those actions. "They created their own issues" is an all-purpose excuse that could justify any punishment, no matter how severe, for any crime, no matter how trivial. It abandons any pretense of concern about proportionality, which is essential to justice. That is how we end up with laws that send people to prison for life (or longer!) because they looked at forbidden pictures.

3. Salerno-Ashford says "somebody was assaulted" in every sex offense, which is simply not true. If someone hires a prostitute, pees in an alley after leaving a bar, runs naked through the streets, or has sex with a girlfriend who has not quite reached his state's age of consent, he may have committed a sex offense, but he has not assaulted anyone. Likewise someone who merely views or possesses child pornography, although it's true that "somebody was assaulted" to produce those images.

The Times also interviews Susan Kang Schroeder, spokeswoman for Orange County, California, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who says "we recognize that there is some argument that these [residence restriction] laws don't work." Although "the jury is still out," she says, "I think they're good laws." It would be more accurate to say there is no good evidence that residence restrictions work. So in what sense are they "good laws"? Because they express the blind outrage of politicians who think any precaution is justified in the name of protecting children and hindering molesters, even if it does neither of those things?

As further evidence of the shallow thinking behind the indiscriminate crackdown on sex offenders, consider Schroeder's take on the debate about recidivism: "The pro-sex-offender lobby likes to bandy about percentages, as if even 1 percent is acceptable." Actually, it is the supporters of ever-harsher laws who like to bandy about percentages, claiming that sex offenders should be treated as an especially worrisome class of criminals in part because they are especially likely to commit new offenses after they've served their sentences. Since the evidence suggests that is not true, surely it is relevant to say so. Questioning hyperbolic claims about recidivism hardly amounts to saying recidivism is "acceptable."

I discussed these and related issues in my 2011 Reason article "Perverted Justice."