It would have taken enormous courage to say no because it was a shockingly awful idea that played well to the simplistic and ignorant. President Obama lacked that courage. Perhaps he’s too busy with his lame duck session. Perhaps he feared that a courageous move would have affected the chances of the Democratic candidate for president. Perhaps his talk of reform was just talk, and he’s every bit as good with bad criminal law policy as everyone else.
No matter. He signed it. It’s now law.
After months of hype about the historic bipartisan consensus that we must make the American criminal justice system less harsh, President Obama finally signed a justice reform bill into law Monday. There’s only one problem: Instead of making the justice system more fair and less punitive, the new law will make it more vindictive and petty. Specifically, it will require people who have been convicted of sex crimes against minors to carry special passports in which their status as registered sex offenders will be marked with conspicuous identifying marks.
This is the stuff that’s easy to sell, as it plays into people’s “common sense” fears. Child molesters? Screw them. There is no one more despised than a child molester. There is no harm to be done to them that’s too harsh. And if it was your child, you would . . . but that’s not the point at all, of course.
The point of International Megan’s Law, in the words of its House sponsor Chris Smith of New Jersey, is to prevent “sex tourism” by making it harder for people to “hop on planes and go to places for a week or two and abuse little children.” In addition to the passport stamp, this goal is supposed to be achieved through the formation of a new federal unit inside of Immigration and Customs Enforcement called the “Angel Watch Center,” which will inform foreign governments when American sex offenders have made plans to visit their countries.
Reminiscent of all the cries about terrible things, what reasonable person couldn’t support such a thing? Except the notion is premised on two myths, that there are predators roaming the streets in vans with pockets filled with candy to lure unsupervised children into sex slavery. The fact is that most child molestation is perpetrated by someone close at hand, friend or relative, and not by strangers. Want to keep your kid safe? Don’t let Uncle Ernie babysit.
The second myth is that child molesters can’t control themselves, but are driven by evil forces to commit their horrific crimes even after they’ve been caught and punished. In fact, the recidivism rate shows the opposite.
A BJS report shows that insofar as that’s true, we’re still talking about a tiny percentage of people: According to the findings, just 5.3 percent of the 9,691 released sex offenders in the study sample were rearrested for a sex crime within three years of their release. Among male child molesters specifically, recidivism appears to be even lower: of the 4,295 male child molesters in the sample, just 3.3 percent were rearrested for another sex crime against a child within three years of their release.
But, but, but isn’t it worth it if it saves just one child?
The impact of the sex offender registries, sweeping in those we revile alongside those who make the list only because someone feared that a terrible person might escape perpetual castigation, has been horrific as well. Along with the realization that maybe sex offender registries don’t actually serve any useful purpose in the first place.
Maybe this was one of those ideas that sounded good to the great unwashed (who didn’t make the list), but didn’t actually work out. Maybe this was an idea that causes grave unintended consequences that could only be discerned by those who indulged in thought, an activity that causes far too many Americans to suffer brutal headaches.
As almost everyone involved in the legal system has come to realize, the sex offender registry concept has, at minimum, gone far beyond any theoretical purpose by including people for increasingly, and pointlessly, long terms of inclusion, offenses that threaten no one, and the unintended consequences of creating a caste of deplorables who can never escape their fate no matter how law-abiding they might be.
So let’s take it international? Let’s make these people who shouldn’t be on the list here be pariahs everywhere. Because isn’t it worth it if it saves one child?
On the one hand, it’s understandable that Obama couldn’t bring himself to veto a bill that purports to protect children from sexual predators. On the other, he should have been able to see that this law is unlikely to achieve anything besides making some Americans feel even more ostracized than they already do. That’s not criminal justice reform. It’s just politics.
Something to bear in mind: for all the talk of reform, there is no support for sound criminal law policies by anyone. As this law shows, no one has the guts to say no to any idea that enjoys broad appeal because it confirms the assumptions of the groundlings. There are no heroes to save the day. It’s just politics. And people’s lives. Nothing worth thinking too hard about.