By now, you’ve certainly heard about the criminal case of an American student studying abroad in Italy – the alleged “mastermind” behind the death of her roommate. Chances are also pretty good that you’ve heard the verdict: 26 years in prison.
This morning I read an article which quoted the victim’s family’s lawyer as having said,
“With tonight’s verdict, justice has been done for the tragedy which struck the Kercher family. They are satisfied. These are severe sentences for young people, so it is a tragedy for all concerned” (italics mine).
If we were to cut the fat from this man’s statement, translate it into an algebraic statement, and then put in true values for the variables, it would come out (when simplified) looking something like this: justice = tragedy + tragedy. Read his statement again. This lawyer suggests that an event which constituted a tragedy, required another tragedy of commensurate degree to be committed in order for justice to occur. Does this sound like justice to you? To me, it sounds like simple revenge – but the kind of revenge you can stomach without shame, because it happened in a court of “law.” (Any one recall “an eye for an eye makes the whole world…”?)
Now, I don’t know much about the case and haven’t taken an interest in it until now – so my words should really be taken cum grano solis. After all, I’m basing my entire perception of wrong-doing on one man’s statement. But, what bothers me more than the fact a court may have allowed revenge to take place in its proceedings, rather than true justice, is that, to my knowledge, no one in the media has been concerned with this same idea. I was inundated yesterday – online, on television, on the radio, in paper – with media buzzards swarming around this story. The aspects they were concerned about were, to me, mundane and irrelevant: “How does the family feel?” (We can all imagine how they feel – now let’s stop prying into their personal lives.) “How does the victim’s family feel?” (We can all imagine how they feel, now let’s stop prying into their personal lives and let them grieve on their own). “Was it sex? Was it drugs? Was it violent?” (Of course the media would pick up on such elements).
Why wasn’t the media evaluating the case? The proceedings? The fairness of the sentences?
In his 1996 essay, “Why American’s Hate the Media,” James Fallows suggested that the media has lost its way. That its focusing on the wrong aspects of the stories it covers. He focuses more on politics, but I think the same idea applies here. He says,
“the pressure to keep things lively means that squabbling replaces dialogue. The discussion shows that are supposed to enhance public understanding may actually reduce it…”
That statement seems to be the crux of what’s wrong with the media. It speaks to a confusion over their vision (not perception, but vision of their purpose). After all, what’s the point of the media? Is it to increase ratings? If so, they can focus on the sensational, but their choice of topic and manner in which they cover it will not enlighten us. So, then, is their purpose to increase our understanding of issues and events? I certainly hope so. But I can’t say I’ve seen evidence of that in the American media today.
Lately I’ve noticed a string of periodicals publishing stories which claim our sex offender laws are too harsh. I read one story and was unconvinced. I read another and, though I started puzzling over the matter in earnest, remained unmoved. A quick succession of a third and fourth article on the subject really had me thinking – and I’ve since come to agree: we need to re-evaluate our stance on sex offenders.
It seems we could refer to the nineties as the “Crackdown on Sex Offenders Decade” – a majority of ordinances and laws were passed in those ten years which have since become a part of our everyday lives: federal and state sex offender registries, living restrictions, and restrictions on where sex offenders can work (or even volunteer – Georgia had banned offenders from volunteering for churches, before it was overturned) . But, what have they accomplished? In our desperation to protect ourselves and our children, we fought in the name of reduced recidivism, but only achieved the creation of a new sub-class of human being: one with no home, no friends, and fewer reasons not to commit more crimes.
The August 8th issue of The Economist tells the story of Wendy Whitaker who, in 1996, performed oral sex on a classmate. She was 17 and he was three weeks short of being 16. In Georgia at the time, oral sex was considered sodomy – and thus was she charged. Whitaker consequently spent more than a year in jail, the state women’s prison, and boot camp. She told The Economist, “I was in there with people who killed people. It’s crazy.” And, although oral sex is no longer considered sodomy in Georgia and a new law has categorized consensual sex
between teenagers only a misdemeanor and not a crime, Whitaker has received no relief: her name, photograph, and address are made publicly available online at Georgia’s Sex Offender Registry. Recently, Whitaker and her husband bought a house, being careful to abide by the living restrictions Georgia has established for these vile sex offenders (they must live and work at least 1,000 feet from anywhere children may congregate). The Whitakers thought they researched their choice well enough, but were evicted when it became evident that a church nearby operated a child-care centre. Her dutiful husband moved with her and lost his job as a result.
A similar tale can be found in Miami, where legislation bans sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of places where children gather . As a result, a new slum has been born: the Julia Tuttle Causeway. Under this bridge, a “colony of predators” eke out their meager existence – or so we think . Most individuals only sleep at the Julia Tuttle Encampment, but live elsewhere during the day. After all, the ordinance just requires them to avoid places where children gather from 10p.m.-6a.m. As one sex offender observed, “We could be in front of a school all day, but we are under the bridge when all the kids are at home with their moms at night. This doesn’t make any sense” .
The sex offender registries have numerous flaws, including:
Weak definitions of sex offenses: 13 states require registration as a sex offender for urinating in public ,
Discrimination against teenagers: 29 states require registration as a sex offender for teenagers who engaged in consensual sex with another teenager . You can drive a car, smoke, fight for your country, and vote – but I’ll throw you in jail if you make consensual love to your girlfriend. The Economist cites one man who feels the pain of this flaw poignantly: he “was convicted of statutory rape two decades ago for having consenual sex with his high-school sweetheart, to whom he is now married” .
The sheer numbers of offenders on the list makes it impossible for law enforcement to do anything effective with it. Terry Norris, of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, reported to The Economist that the man who had consensual sex with his high-school sweetheart, mentioned above, takes as much of their time and resources as someone who commits an especially “heinous” crime .
These individuals are made into targets for harassment: Numerous examples abound, describing convicted sex offenders being physically assaulted, murdered, or psychologically abused. While some critics might say this is their just desserts – we have to think strategically. While it is fair to say a murdered sex offender poses no threat to anything but our conscience, a harassed sex offender is only more likely to commit a more crimes – after all, what’s the point of abiding the law if it doesn’t protect you?
As a result of these flaws, we can paint this portrait of your average sex offender, post-punishment:
Destablized: “Well-intended policy is making the public less safe…[it] destablizes [offenders] by making them homeless” 
Destablized: “20-40% have had to move house because a landord or neighbor realized they were sex offenders” .
Emotionally unstable: “49% of sex offenders’ families report fearing for their own safety”  and most report feeling depressed, hopeless, or afraid .
Does it really seem logical to make a convicted sex offender more unstable? Admittedly, there is probably little “rehabilitation” for those who have committed heinous crimes – most of them are likely sick individuals who need to be imprisioned for the majority of their lives or medicated. But for the other individuals (those who were caught giving blowjobs, caught having consensual – though underage – sex, caught peeing on a building in public), do we really want to be creating an environment which is more likely to turn them into actual criminals, then just fools who made a silly mistake?
Building Blocks Towards a Solution
The Human Rights Watch is championing a better solution, where no other politicians have. Among other things, they propose the following adjustments to our sex offender laws:
Those convicted of minor, non-violent offenses should be not required to register
Juveniles should not be required to register
Sex offenders should be individually assessed, and only those judged to rape someone or abuse a child should be registered
Registrations will be regularly reviewed and offenders who are “rehabilitated” or who grow to old to re-offend, should be removed from the registry.
The information on sex-offenders registries should be held by the police and not published online, except on a need-to-know basis.
Blanket bans on all sex offenders living and working in certain areas should be abolished. Instead it makes sense for the most dangerous offenders to face tailored restrictions as a condition of parole.
The Economist (08.08.09), pg 21.
The Economist (08.08.09), pg22.
Newsweek (0803.09), pg 48. “A Bridge Too Far,” by Catharine Skipp and Arian Campo-Flores.
Newsweek (0803.09), pg 49. “A Bridge Too Far,” by Catharine Skipp and Arian Campo-Flores.
At thirteen years of age and living just four-doors apart from each other, Sarah Drew and Megan Meier were your typical girl friends in your typical Missouri town living their typical teenage lives. Megan and Sarah even experienced a typical falling-out, when chats about boys turned into name-calling, bickering and, eventually, silence.
If only that had been the end of their typical friendship. Instead, in the summer of 2006, Sarah’s mother, Lori Drew, got involved. Aged forty-seven at the time, Lori created a MySpace profile for a fictional boy, Josh Evans. She sought out and “friended” Megan Meier online “in an attempt to woo [Megan] and extract information from her to determine if she had been spreading gossip about [her] daughter.”  For weeks, Lori Drew, her daughter, and a co-worker fabricated a romantic relationship with Meier until, in October 2006, things got ugly. Attacking Megan’s self-esteem, “Josh Evans” wrote “I don’t want to be friends with you anymore because you’re not nice to your friends.” Shortly after Megan replied, asking what he meant, she realized that “Evans” had publicly posted messages she had written to him, where they could be viewed by all of her friends at school. As a result, these “friends” began posting bulletins making fun of Megan. Continue reading “Creating (and Destroying) Realities”