By GUY HAMILTON-SMITH
I am a sex offender.
I know well the tremendous power of those words. In 2007, I pled guilty to possession of child pornography.
Nothing here is meant to defend what I did or to minimize the gravity of my actions. I had a major problem with pornography, and I was far too deep in denial and too scared to reach out to anyone.
Help eventually came when my girlfriend discovered child porn on my computer and went to the police. I was then and remain grateful to her for taking that step.
As I went through the legal process after my arrest, I developed a keen interest in the law, and a sincere desire to advocate on the behalf of those who are hated, who are lost, and who are forgotten. With luck, I managed to win acceptance to law school despite my conviction. I worked harder than I'd ever worked in my life, because I knew I'd have a lot to do to overcome my past. I did well in school, graduated, secured a job at a law firm after disclosing my past, and applied to take the bar exam.
Recently, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that I will not be allowed to take the bar exam until I am no longer on the sex-offender registry, which will be another 18 years from now.
But the point I want to make is not about me. It isn't about my case. I am not here to say whether the court's decision was right or wrong. The principles at play are much larger than me.
Strange as it may sound coming from a felon and a sex offender, I believe in the necessity of punishment. How else, after all, are people supposed to make amends for the harm that they cause?
Indeed, my experiences as a criminal defendant, my experiences in law school and by working in criminal defense inform my belief in the ideal that our justice system. That it can work to the benefit of, not only the state and the victims, but the perpetrators, as well.
After all, I believe in many ways that my life was saved by virtue of my arrest.
I am sensitive to the fact that my crime, and the crimes of others on the sex offender registry, are serious. I do not mean to denigrate the plight of victims, as I was also a victim at one point in my own childhood.
My point, rather, is simply this: punishment that becomes unmoored from considerations of proportionality, redemption and reintegration becomes poison, and we — society, victims and perpetrators — become diminished by it.
Nowhere is this more evident than the sex-offender registry. Those who find themselves constituents of the registry are routinely and uniformly denied the same second chance afforded to so many other criminal defendants after they have served their sentences.
The impetus behind the registry is the popular belief that sex offenders always commit new sex crimes. That view, however, is at odds with data from the Department of Justice and others.
For instance, a Justice study examining the records of nearly 10,000 sex offenders found that only 3.5 percent committed a new sex crime. Other studies indicate that most instances of sexual abuse are perpetrated by someone known to the victim, such as a family member, as opposed to a stranger.
There is also no evidence to suggest that sex offenders who live close to schools or playgrounds reoffend at a rate higher than other sex offenders.
The consequences of such a system are not just borne by the offenders, either. One of the common criticisms of the registry, in light of the evidence, is that it provides a false sense of security to parents.
If that is so, then invariably placing the problem of sexual offending onto just those already convicted helps in great measure to perpetuate the very evil the registry was intended to eradicate.
I know that I am not a sympathetic figure by virtue of my crime. I know that I can never change the past or undo the things that I have done.
My hope here is that we can have a discussion in this country that is long overdue — namely, what it is that we hope to achieve from our system of criminal justice.