First in a series on sex offenders.
After several knocks on the front door, a lean man in his 20s opened it and squinted at us through thick glasses.
“Who is it?” he asked.
“It’s the police.” My partner answered.
The man shrugged, sighed and opened the door. We walked past him into the stale-smelling studio unit and saw a young lady sitting on a sofa with a small child on her lap. I looked down at the sex offender bulletin in my hand. Front and center was a picture of the now very guilty looking man with glasses. I said his name, and he nodded. I checked his restrictions.
“You’re not supposed to be in the presence of a juvenile,” I told him as my partner brought out the handcuffs. A few minutes later, after a phone call to his probation officer, we were off to jail.
That is how the sex offender registration system is supposed to work. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple.
There has always been a contentious argument about the best way to deal with sex offenders. Because the matter is decided at the state level, the answers come in 50 different flavors. In Washington, for example, we have a registry, special incarceration facilities and a means (commitment) to incarcerate selected predators past the end of their sentence.
Depending upon your point of view, the current status quo in our state is either insufficient or else goes much too far. Those who believe that Washington’s sex offender statute is a violation of due process would fall into this latter category. They believe that the registry is unconstitutional and that it is simply a matter of time before a registry exists for every particular crime. In this assessment, their view of sex crimes is from an academic standpoint. Comfortably ensconced behind their desks, academics and legal scholars are far removed from the depravities of sexual predators and their prey.
Sexual assaults are a crime like no other. These criminal acts are predominantly committed by men against comparatively weaker victims, usually women or children, in an act meant to display dominance through the utter debasement of the victim. No more personal offense, short of homicide, exists in our society.
In fact, victimization is a sliding scale. Consider the typical first encounter between a police officer and the victim of a burglary. The frustrated and explosive homeowner makes the emotional declaration, “I feel so violated!” This is a sincere and valid statement. Yet the experience of interviewing a rape victim, usually conducted by police, emergency room nurses, doctors or or social workers, would change the way most people think about the word “violated.”
Victims of sexual assault do not explode with rage; they implode. I have spoken with rape victims while they were curled up in the fetal position; some stared off into space during the interview, their voices present but their minds far away; others managed to pull off a sense of stability, but their hollow responses betrayed a fragile mental state.
Most victims exhibit a deep sense of loss, and it is not hard to understand what they are mourning: the loss of self-esteem, of feeling safe in public, of the inviolable sense of ownership over their own bodies. The trauma of a sexual assault can span a lifetime.
That is the nature of the crime committed by sex offenders. It is important we recognize this distinction, because the fight over Washington’s handling of sex offenders is a never-ending dispute. This topic will be discussed in a series of subsequent columns, which will touch on the management (and mismanagement) of sex offenders by law enforcement, the Legislature and the public.
This is an important issue and I welcome the debate.