Thursday, February 21, 2013

Panic Does Not Make for Good Policy

Original Article

02/20/2013

By Roger N. Lancaster

Sexual violence, like other forms of violence, is traumatic and devastating. The question is not whether the state has an interest in preventing such harm, but whether current laws are appropriate and effective.

The U.S. legal landscape was reshaped by federal laws passed in the mid-1990s, in response to heinous but statistically unusual crimes involving stranger abduction, rape and murder. The Wetterling Act required convicted sex offenders to register with local authorities, and Megan’s Law required law enforcement to notify neighbors about the presence of a sex offender in their community. As a result, all states now post searchable online lists of at least some categories of registered sex offenders. The U.S. Department of Justice links all the states’ registries in a single searchable site, available to neighbors, employers, landlords and the public at large.

These public lists do include some violent repeat offenders, which was the original aim of the laws. But the registries have grown rapidly — to nearly three-quarters of a million registrants at latest count. Culpability and harm vary greatly in the offenses for which people are registered. Some states require exhibitionists and “peeping Toms” to register. By best estimates, a large majority is registered for conviction on first offenses involving neither violence nor coercion (or even, in some cases, physical contact). Many registrants would not be classified as criminal under European laws, which set lower ages of consent than do American laws. Registrants even include minors who had consensual sex with their high school sweethearts, or who traded self-taken sexually explicit photos with their peers (“sexting”).


See Also:

Roger N. Lancaster, a professor of anthropology and cultural studies at George Mason University, is the author of "Sex Panic and the Punitive State."


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