2nd in a series on sex offenders.
A few years back I signed up to coach my son’s little league team. Not so fast, I was told; first fill out the mandatory criminal background check. My thoughts were on pitching skills, practice times and getting parent volunteers, but first the league needed to know I was not a sex offender.
Many people take exception to the huge amount of bureaucracy and privacy issues that has insinuated its way into our lives, courtesy of sex offender legislation. I had a different perspective, partly based on my experiences investigating sex crimes and interviewing victims (see my last column on this topic). After those experiences, I had no trouble filling out the form.
Sexual predation is an expression of malevolent power as old as the human experience. The impact of a rape or molestation on the victim is intensely personal, and the corrupting effects can linger a lifetime. We can certainly agree that the actions of sex offenders are abhorrent and worthy of harsh punishment.
That, unfortunately, is the end of our collective agreement. From that common point the remedies lead to questions, and the disparate answers send the discussion into tangents separating at an increasing rate. The national discussion becomes more confusing because each state has its own sex offender registration laws.
Two of the more significant points of contention both concern the controversial registration of sex offenders. Specifically, there has been much debate on 1) the inclusion of sex crimes that do not appear to meet the criteria of predatory; 2) registered sex offenders (RSO’s) being monitored in ways that are inefficient and ineffectual.
In terms of inclusive crimes, the “Rape of a child” statute is a case in point. This crime is based on consensual sex, and the age of the victim and offender determines the crime and the degree (1st, 2nd, 3rd). For example, Rape of a child 1st degree involves a victim less than twelve and an offender at least 2 years older, i.e. a 13-year-old having consensual sex with an 11-year-old. The offenses under 2nd and 3rd degree differ by an increase in the victim’s age and the disparity in ages of the victim and offender (RCW 9A.44), but in all cases a conviction could lead to registration for the offender.
The purpose of the sex offender registry is, or at least should be, to protect people. This prevention model should also provide some guarantee that the subjects on the registry committed crimes that were in some way predatory. Some sex crimes, such as Rape of a child, may not meet that standard. This is a serious issue because the stigma attached to being labeled an RSO is a virtual roadblock to public programs, rental property, jobs and relationships. If the person affected is truly a predator, then so be it. If not, then it begs the question: How is the community benefitting from having that individual registered and monitored?
The other disconnect in this system is oversight. A recent Trib article (via the Palm Beach Post) described a Florida loophole that has allowed sex offenders to gain access to children. Since Florida does not require summer camps to have business licenses, workers in that industry need not submit to a background check. The result is that registered sex offenders in Florida have been getting jobs at youth summer camps – the consummate case of the fox in the henhouse.
Washington State has its own issues with oversight. Sex offenders here must register any address change at their local police department or sheriff’s office, and failure to do so is a felony. Unfortunately, many agencies don’t have the resources (or choose not to devote resources) to routine checks on RSO’s. The state has provided additional funds for for this purpose, but the process remains woefully inefficient. The highest priority is given to Level 3 (most likely to re-offend), despite the fact that many of these offenders are on active supervision with the Department of Corrections. In these cases, Community Corrections Officers (CCO’s) make frequent visits, well in excess of police department checks. In a perfect world those visits would be coordinated, ensuring that certain offenders don’t receive an inordinate amount of police visits while some offenders slip through the cracks.
All of these problems should be addressed. We need better assurance that the people included in the sex offender registry are truly predators from whom we must be protected. Once accomplished, we must do a better job at keeping tabs on these individuals once they have been released back to the community.
This is a complex and controversial issue in our imperfect world. As in all things, we must find a balance between defending ourselves from humans who treat others as disposable sex toys, while we avoid becoming a police state. It’s an important task.