Friday, June 01, 2001

A Scarlet Letter for Sex Offenders

A Scarlet Letter for Sex Offenders
By William Raspberry
The Washington Post - Friday, June 1, 2001

A Texas judge has ordered 14 probationers to post signs outside their homes announcing: "Danger. Registered Sex Offender Lives Here."

They also have to have a similar sign attached to the rear of their automobiles -- and a detachable sign must be displayed in the rear window by the driver of any private car in which a probationer is a passenger.

Has Judge J. Manuel Banales gone too far? Or is it about time somebody did something to protect our children from sexual predators? The questions have split the residents of Corpus Christi (and much of the legal profession elsewhere). The answers, not surprisingly, depend very much on the image that comes to mind when you hear the term "sex offender."

Think of the pervert perpetually exposing himself, or, especially, think of the dirty old man habitually preying sexually on unsuspecting schoolchildren, and you might think the signs a pretty good idea. If the state can't keep these dangerous people locked up, at least parents have a right to know where they are on the loose.

On the other hand, think of the one-time offender who couldn't quite figure out that "no" meant no, or of the 18-year-old caught having consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. Think of the sex offenders who are themselves children. Do you really want such people publicly branded? Are they truly that dangerous?

Banales, who appears to be acting within the Texas law that already provides for notifying residents when a released sex offender moves into their neighborhood, defends his actions as a "reasonable" application of the law. A little drastic, perhaps. But, as he puts it, "Between protecting the safety of children and protecting the rights of a person on probation for a sex offense, the balance has to tilt toward the children."

And the sign-bearers, he notes, are probationers. They are people who have been convicted of sex offenses but who have applied for probation to avoid serving prison time. As part of the deal, they agree to abide by whatever lawful conditions the judge imposes.
So far as I can discover, none of them has petitioned the court for jail time in order to escape the "Scarlet Letter" treatment.

At one level, it makes a sort of tough-minded sense. I mean, how many tears would I shed if the guy who burglarized my home a few years back were made to display an "I Am a Burglar" sticker on his car? It wouldn't bother me a lot if they tattooed a scarlet "B" on his forehead. And what about people convicted of speeding, or driving under the influence, or aggravated assault or tax evasion? Why not make them post signs in their yards? Why not a similar treatment for loan officers or home-repair people who take advantage of poor folk? Or for drug dealers and drug users?

Are sex crimes really that special?

Well, perhaps they are -- on at least two levels. First, sex crimes are different from car theft and tax fraud in quite fundamental ways. They are intensely and peculiarly personal and, partly for that reason, can be particularly traumatizing.

Second, sex criminals (at least those who prey on children and strangers) may be different from other criminals. Counterfeiters, reckless drivers and spousal abusers might change their behavior to avoid prison or even bad publicity. But as Duke University psychologist Robert Carson once told me regarding a different Texas case, sex offenders are not so amenable to change.

"Nothing has as yet been devised to give reasonable assurance of non-recidivism for such individuals," he said. "That's true of rapists and child molesters and even of such milder offenders as exhibitionists and peepers. The only thing that has worked -- apart from permanent incarceration until old age -- is the very expensive way of constant monitoring by trained parole officers and the like."

Do Judge Banales's mandatory signs fall acceptably into the category of "and the like"? When I think of some of the dangerous repeat offenders -- people who rape and kill even after serving their time for earlier offenses -- I'm tempted to say yes.

But then it occurs to me: If Banales thinks his 14 sign-bearers are that dangerous, why would he give them probation in the first place?

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