According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), there are 843,260 registered sex offenders listed in the United States. Some will spend five, 10 or 40 years in prison, but in truth, when they get out and reenter society, offenders are doomed to a life sentence without bars.
I’m no bleeding heart. I put hundreds of criminals in jail for serious crimes in my 30-year career, including sex crimes. Anyone who commits a violent sex act against a child (or adult) should be duly punished. Those who have shown a proclivity for stalking or violating children should be restricted from contact with kids. No argument.
My concern is with the offenders who, in reality, have shown no real danger of predatory behavior, yet still fall under the broad brush of all of sex offenders, thereby subject to lifelong registration.
A 19-year-old boy who has consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl and goes to prison, will not only serve time, he will live the rest of his life as a banished sex offender until old age. Never mind that we are living in blatant sexual active times for the young, as denoted by risqué role models, clothing, music and salacious entertainment and open societal behavior, whereby language and sexual references are commonplace.
Recent studies reveal that 46 percent of all high school age kids have had sexual intercourse. (excluding data for non-intercourse sex). By 12th grade, 9 million kids will have had sex. In many states, half of those 9 million are guilty of some crime.
Let’s be honest here: Sex is condoned directly or by inference to kids by the millions. Then the law plays the morality card when it’s easy to secure a conviction.
While we want to do everything possible to protect young teen girls, (or boys) it’s a fact that in many states, simply urinating in public is considered a sex offense requiring registration for life. Most states and the federal court system have imposed minimum-mandatory laws which limit the discretion of judges in handing out verdicts, sentencing and registry requirements. Judges don’t judge anymore; they merely facilitate predetermined rules.
I’m currently in communication with a 52 year-old man who, four years ago, downloaded a kiddie porn site and watched it from his living room. Gross? Yes. He had no history of sexual deviance, no predatory background, and no history of sexual contact with kids. He looked at dirty pictures. Sure, as a consumer, he deserves some punishment. But to this level? He is not only serving a mandatory six-year prison sentence, he’ll have to register – for the next 40-plus years – as a sex offender. That translates to no jobs and nowhere to live.
Have we gone nuts?
Sex offenders cannot live within specific footage of parks, schools, bus stops, recreation centers, and other places children visit. Managers of rental units ban convicted sex offenders of any definition. That leaves offenders no choice but to live homeless, in the woods and under bridges.
For four years, Miami’s Julia Tuttle Causeway became an encampment for banished sex offenders where laws were so strict some offenders chose to live in the Everglades. As many as 140 lived under causeway bridges in 2009, required to be on premises from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily according to the Corrections Department. Most of the living quarters were cardboard shelters and/or tents.
That’s rehabilitation? That’s assisting offenders with re-entry? Where’s the humanity and education?
Yes. Innocent people must be protected from dangerous predators. But we’ve lost perspective when we label nearly everything as a “sex offense” to and including public urination, looking at pictures, and mid-teen consensual activity that’s as rampant as smoking pot. If every “offender” were to be arrested, we would have to build ten times the prisons.
There’s got to be a better way, including isolation, rehabilitation and education, but the focus of lawmakers is narrow. We have lost sight of humanity.
Politicians say: “Fighting crime means more cops, jails and prisons.”
That’s a good punchline at election time, but it solves nothing.
Marshall Frank is a retired Miami-Dade police detective and frequent contributor to FLORIDA TODAY.