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There is today in our country a growing threat to our legal system, to the rights of all of us, to the quality of life of children, and to common sense. This threat has been fanned by prosecutors, nurtured by the media, and ignored by those who usually speak out against such dangers.
In its most narrow sense this threat can be defined as the particular approach to sexual deviance embodied in ever-more-draconian laws against all behaviors labeled “sex offenses” — including those committed by minors — and in the sex offender registries of every state and the Federal government.1 In this approach to sex offenses, slander, hysteria and demonization often replace reason, solid research and proportionality.
But more broadly, the danger consists of an all-out assault on fairness, on the reputations of some of our most caring people, on necessary social relationships and on our critical ability to confront the deepening social paranoia of 21st century America.
In 1999, a group of us in Boston — prominent political activists, civil libertarians, and workers in the mental health and legal systems, as well as teachers and others who work with children — tried to draw public attention to this threat with a “Call to Safeguard our Children and Our Liberties.” Eight years have passed and the crisis we addressed then has gotten far worse. The demonization of those accused of illegal sexual activity — both the innocent and the guilty — and the criminalization or stigmatization of more and more forms of sexual expression has reached new heights. All sense of fairness and due process are often tossed to the winds. The worst thing a person has ever done in their lives becomes the only thing they have ever done. Many who always despised “pedophiles” have been swept up by the hysteria and are stunned to suddenly find themselves or their children labeled sex offenders. The lives of many thousands of people have been unfairly ruined. And we have created a despised under-class labeled “sex offenders”. All of these developments are justified under the high-sounding rhetoric of “protecting our children from sexual predators” despite the fact that a great many registered sex offenders have never committed sexual offenses against minors.
In the process, the American legal system has moved from identifying specific crimes which cause real harm toward naming whole classes of “bad persons” to shame and isolate them for life. A similar change in the American legal approach has taken place since 9/11, with regard to those accused of “terrorism.” In these cases, many rights of the accused have vanished. Fortunately, though, there has been public criticism about the suspension of due-process, habeas corpus and other rights for accused “terrorists”.
But there has been no public outcry by those claiming concern for human rights when rights are suspended for accused sex offenders, especially those accused of any offense against a minor. Indeed, even the definition of “who is a child” is being radically changed. Though ages vary from state to state — between 14 and 18 — federal law now replaces these in many cases, creating a national age of 18, below which a person is deemed a “child” with regard to sex.
Certainly many caring people are providing important support to children who have been sexually violated and want to protect other children from such harm. But is the welfare of children really the driving dynamic behind current public perceptions and policies? And how are these policies actually impacting the lives of young people? What if the overwhelming focus on dangers posed by some sex offenders diverts our attention from other prevalent dangers to children, some of which would be simple to alleviate (e.g., crushing, humiliating poverty) and others much more complex (e.g., family violence). At the same time, many youngsters are now prosecuted and/or subjected to public shaming for behaviors that young people (including most of today’s adults when they were young) have engaged in for millennia without public stigma.
The “clergy abuse scandal” and the almost daily sensationalist coverage of allegations of sex abuse in the media, has led to due-process simply vanishing where sex is alleged. Instead of leading to a deeper understanding of sexuality and sexual violation, the framing of the priests’ crisis has dramatically increased ignorance and demonization, lumping together the innocent and the guilty, those guilty of minor infractions with those who caused serious harm, and those accused of one violation in an entire career of supporting young people with those who caused harm on a regular basis.
Meanwhile children across the land learn that adults who like them are suspect. And more and more men who pose no danger at all to kids stay away from them, refuse them rides and shun innocent interactions that involve physical contact to avoid any possible misinterpretation of genuine affection or concern. Children, men and our society are the losers.
As soon as someone is accused of sexual behavior with a minor, their name is splashed all over TV and the newspapers, destroying their careers and good name, and their accuser is publicly labeled a victim. All of this happens whether the accusation is true or not. And the destroyed lives of the falsely accused pile up by the day. Statutes of limitations have been virtually abolished for these cases. DA’s, judges and juries indict or convict on the mere allegation of sexual violation without any consideration that supporting evidence is lacking. “Repressed memories”, unsupported or even contradicted by physical evidence, sometimes become the basis for conviction.
Many convicted of sex offenses receive very long sentences in the first place — often unrelated to the seriousness of their crime and sometimes even longer than those guilty of manslaughter.Until overruled by the Supreme Court, six states had attempted to institute the death penalty for sex offenses involving children when murder or even physical violence was not alleged.
If they do get out of prison, once they have completed their sentence, those designated “sex offenders” are mandated by federal law to register with the police. This requirement covers those accused of even the slightest sexual impropriety with a person under 18 for which they may have been given a suspended sentence. They must provide their names, addresses and other personal information which is then made public on the internet and in other ways. It is common that they are hounded, driven out of their jobs and homes and humiliated for decades. They are almost without the protection of Constitutional rights. They have no way to re-integrate into society. Their families and friends are almost as “shamed” and ostracized as they are. Such public humiliation and isolation has led to suicides. Several registered persons have been murdered by those who found their addresses, in two cases randomly.
Sex offenders are often very limited regarding travel and where they can live and they are often prohibited from being in many public spaces. A new wave of local legislation is sweeping over the land making it illegal for registered persons who have served their sentences to live virtually anywhere at all. In Miami, they can only live under a bridge.
The numbers required to register grow exponentially — including juveniles and many whose offenses were committed decades ago when they were considered rather minor transgressions. Together with their spouses, children and parents, registered sex offenders constitute a population larger than most large U.S. cities. There are over 500,000 registered sex offenders in the United States,several hundred thousand being sought for registration, several hundred thousand in prison, plus family members of sex offenders numbering about 2,000,000.
And the insanity spreads, instituting a new war on children and on young people and their sexuality. The public registries in the US include children as young as eleven years old, a four-year-old has been charged with sexual harassment, and first graders have been prosecuted for sodomy as a result of innocent, mutual play with peers. Juveniles whose feelings or actions are considered deviant have been subjected to the same aversive therapies once used to “cure” gay men, as well as public humiliation – their names, addresses and photos provided the public on the internet and in other media. Though in other areas, the privacy of juveniles is considered paramount, in the case of “sex offenders” it is completely abandoned.
In twenty states, life-time civil commitment is now mandated for some categories of sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences.Though this status is supposed to be reserved only for truly violent predators, existing law now defines any offense against a minor, including those without any violence, as a violent act. By 2006, nearly 3,000 sex offenders were held under such statutes, and the number has undoubtedly increased. Though such persons are supposed to be in treatment for verifiable mental illnesses, and may be released to supervised parole, very few have ever been released, and many go virtually untreated.
Some of us who signed the original “Call to Protect our Children and Our Liberties” feel we must try again to stimulate a more objective discussion of the issues. We hope to get others to join us – especially people who work with children and who support justice and common sense. We want to get more people to raise the cry against this ravaging of the social fabric by a destructive and wrong-headed crusade.
We affirm the need to protect children — and all people of all ages — from sexual harm and the terror of violent rape and to deal seriously with those acts which cause such harm. We will emphasize the civil and human costs of current policies which deprive people of their rights and humiliate them and which undermine supportive relationships between adults and young people.
The present crusade is spreading fear and loathing across our society. Our society does not need more fear and loathing. It needs trust and dignity and redemption. At present there is no telling how far this self-destructive approach to social problems related to sexuality can go — unless people capable of courage, compassion and common sense stand up to stop it and turn our country’s attention to real solutions to our problems.