Ed. Note: This is a guest post by Guy Hamilton-Smith.
The last time I read something that made me feel quite this flavor of incandescent was a decade ago, in law school — it was Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas. In fact, as I recall, I had to stop reading it before I finished I was so enraged, and the only thing that I could do to salve my anger was to comfort myself with the knowledge that it was, in fact, a dissent.
I’d been thinking about the idea for some time of doing this — finding someplace where I can write something in between long-form articles like law review articles or extremely short-form things like tweets. So, in a way, I’m grateful to USA Today and Josh Salman for giving me the kick I needed. But I am also very angry. Angery, even.
USA Today apparently thought it newsworthy that someone who did an admittedly terrible thing fourteen years ago and was held to account for it now has (or, had) a job as a hospital janitor, and sought to correct what it had perceived as an injustice.
The subject of the story, Mr. Lopez, was convicted of crimes related to criminal sexual abuse in 2006, and received a prison term which he completed in 2010. He then did, presumably, what we want all people who are released from prison to do: to live law-abiding, productive, and meaningful lives. If we don’t want that of people exiting the legal system, then what exactly are we doing? What’s the purpose of punishment in the first instance if we don’t want that?
At any rate, Lopez was a veteran, and so he secured a federal contract to provide janitorial services to the VA as the story reports — which as the headline indicates, was terminated after “USA TODAY asks questions.”
Though the questions that USA TODAY asks aren’t really related to anything that Lopez was doing now. There was no allegation of impropriety (aside from an insinuation that apparently it’s dangerous to have anyone with any kind of a past conviction for a sex offense in a hospital, as if they’re contagious):
That means doctors, nurses and other medical professionals with past sex crime convictions are not allowed to practice in VA hospitals and clinics in Illinois without a special waiver. Others argued those same protections for the public should extend to janitors and other contractors who might work in these buildings, where an offender could have access to VA employees and patients.
As near as I can tell, the story trades on well-worn tropes about sexual harm and dangerousness — that if someone committed a crime 14 years ago, and if that crime was a sexual one, then they are simply bound to commit it again (despite, of course, all available data, including from the government itself, indicating that’s flatly incorrect).
Were Salman interested in, perhaps, doing a journalism, those might have been interesting points to interrogate. However, none of that was raised — they were unstated premises that the piece wholly and credulously accepts as fact.
Had he interrogated those premises, then the piece falls apart as journalism: how is it relevant? Why does it matter what he did in 2006 if there’s no allegation or indication he’s doing anything wrong in 2020? When can we say that he’s done his time? And why does that mean you need to make him unemployed now, in the midst of a pandemic? If being a hospital janitor is too good for Mr. Lopez, what employment does Salman think is appropriate for him?
Leaving it at that, it just would have been a bad piece of journalism and I’ve read many of those and written a few (though, I don’t think I’ve written any that set out to see someone lose a job for shaky reasons in the midst of a global pandemic), and that wouldn’t have made me take time out of my morning to write this.
But the reason why I’m writing is that Salman and his editors apparently thought it appropriate to include his home address in the story, with a screen grab taken from the Illinois’ registry (which I am not reproducing here for obvious reasons).
There’s a lot to say about this, but the short version is just because the government is in the business of doxxing unpopular people and their families doesn’t mean that you have to help them, especially if you’re pretending to be in the business of journalism. Presumably this cleared editorial standards because no one thought to question the basic, major, unstated premise of the piece — that people with past sex offense convictions are immutable monsters, and thank goodness that the government has this handy list where we can know where all the bad people live.
Murder, violence, and vigilantism against people whom the government compels to appear on these registries and their families is not uncommon. A few months ago, a man in Nebraska who was required to register was murdered at his home by a man who used the registry to target him. I can think of a good half dozen other cases off the top of my head.
Even if you wouldn’t shed a tear for Mr. Lopez, presumably you don’t think his family would deserve to die, or perhaps you do — in which case I would invite you to consider, who is the monster in this scenario?
As I stated up top, I’m not defending his crime. I’ll accept Salman’s recitation of the facts for these purposes, and not try to rehabilitate or defend Lopez’s actions: what he did was terrible, and he was held accountable for that, as he should have been.
But punishment that becomes unmoored from considerations of proportionality, the opportunity for redemption, and mercy, becomes little more than a poison that diminishes us all.
If what we tell people who have committed some crime (which is, by the way, all of you) that you can never be anything other than the worst thing you ever did, why should anyone try to be something better?
Edit: As Kevin Phipps points out on Twitter, a fact of the article which I breezed by in my morning anger is that it was Mr. Lopez’s company that was awarded the contract, meaning it is entirely possible both that he was not even providing direct services and that multiple people are now joining the ranks of the unemployed due to USA TODAY’s “asking questions.”
What makes it worse, is the article says he doesn't even work as a janitor. He's president of his company where he scheduled his employees to do the work. So really, by ending the contract, they put several other people out of a job because of the owner. pic.twitter.com/3sV7WVXLlc
— Kevin Phipps (@crazykev07) August 11, 2020