By LISA F. JACKSON and DAVID FEIGE
For this Op-Doc video, we visited a small community in Florida known as “Miracle Village,” where more than 100 registered sex offenders have settled since 2009. Surrounded by sugar cane fields, the community has become a rare refuge for them as they try to rebuild their lives in one of the only communities that will have them: stringent residency requirements make it almost impossible for them to live anywhere else.
We come to this documentary from two very different perspectives. Lisa has spent years examining sex crimes from the victim’s point of view, making documentaries that try to de-stigmatize the survivors and argue for their access to justice. David spent his years as a public defender in Brooklyn, Harlem and the Bronx, defending people accused of doing the victimizing. These contrasting perspectives have made for a lively collaboration in which we have found common ground.
We live in a society that is terrified of sex offenders, sometimes with good reason. But in some cases the perpetrators, and not just the victims, are denied justice. Every high-profile sex crime spawns a rush to do something about the “predators” among us. Unfortunately, these so-called solutions are doing more harm than good. In the past 25 years, the laws governing sex offenses have gone from punitive to draconian to senseless. The term “sex offender” simply covers too wide a range now, painting the few truly heinous crimes and the many relatively innocuous ones with the same broad brush. This overly broad approach wastes resources that could be better spent, for instance, on clearing the huge and unforgivable backlog of untested rape evidence kits.
We see even deeper problems: the explosion of sex offender registries, stringent yet demonstrably ineffective residency restrictions, and the bizarre world of “civil commitment,” where we punish what someone might do rather than what he or she has done. All of this suggests that our entire approach to dealing with sex offenders has gone tragically off the rails.
Lisa F. Jackson is an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker based in New York. Her last film, “Sex Crimes Unit,” chronicled prosecutors in the Manhattan district attorney’s office and “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo” won a special jury prize for documentary at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
David Feige, a television writer and former Trial Chief of the Bronx Defenders, is the co-creator of the T.N.T. series “Raising the Bar” and the author of “Indefensible: One Lawyer’s Journey Into the Inferno of American Justice.” He has written about law for The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and Slate.