Friday, November 10, 2006

The Witch Hunts of Our Time

The election results gave us much to be happy about, but there were a few disappointments. One notable one was the passage of Prop 83 in California, by very large margins. Sex offenders are already listed on public registries, Scarlet Letter style, for the rest of their lives, and prohibited from living too close to schools. With the passage of Prop 83, the expanded restrictions on where they can live effectively exile them from most cities altogether. And even as they're living out their lives in trailers in the Mohave desert, the state will continue to track them all by GPS. Even the ones that are 75 years old, and have served their full sentence for a crime committed decades ago.

With all due respect to the real victims of sex offenders, the punitive hyper-reaction of our society to sex offenses has turned it into the witch hunts of our time. The topic stirs a primal fear -- the threat of harm to our children -- which induces hysteria, and all hope of rational analysis and proportionate reaction flies out the window. The phenomenon is not new. I saw the witch hunts first-hand in the 1980s when I lived near Manhattan Beach, where the McMartin family was being practically pilloried for accusations of sexual abuse in the preschool they operated, charges that turned out to be totally baseless. But the flames of hysteria spread like fire in the California hills when the dry Santa Ana winds are blowing, and an innocent family and their preschool was utterly ruined by it.

I also saw this first hand a few years ago when a friend was accused and convicted of a ridiculously bogus child molestation charge, for which he served several years in prison. It's a long story, but suffice it to say that the alleged incident occurred in a completely open and public place, in plain view of many people, and was not corroborated by anyone including the boy's mother who was sitting right next to her son and interacting with my friend when the "molestation" supposedly occurred. Unfortunately, when the charge is a sex offense against a minor, hysteria trumps rationality, and any defendant is guilty until proven innocent (and still guilty even then). For this clearly bogus charge, a five year prison sentence was handed down, which of course is only the beginning. Thanks to the latest manifestation of sexual abuse hysteria -- the Draconian exile-the-sex-offenders voter initiatives -- my friend will pay for this non-crime for the rest of his life.

With these anecdotal experiences, I do not mean to suggest that sexual abuse and its victims do not exist, or that these are not serious crimes. But I do mean to suggest that our society has a heightened sensitivity to these issues, bordering on hysteria, which prevents dispassionate rational consideration of the issue, and leads to completely disproportionate reactions. Case in point: we saw several Congressional scandals this season, mostly involving bribery and influence-peddling, which ought to stir outrage and bring Congressmen down in a rational country. In America, not so much. William "cold cash" Jefferson, caught on tape and with $150,000 in cash in his freezer, is being sent back to the Washington gravy train for another ride. However, Bob Foley sends lewd and inappropriate text messages to some of his pages, and that brings the House down. Again, not saying what Foley did wasn't reprehensible. But the comparative reaction to Foley vs. Jefferson, Ney, and their ilk is completely unhinged.

As California jumped on the sex-offender-demonization wagon this week, I submit that the voters voted out of ignorance and primal fear. Did anyone bother to ask whether the uniquely punitive measures were proportionate? (Is it reasonable to treat a sex offender as worse than a murderer?) Even more pointedly, is there any evidence to suggest that the punitive measures enacted would have any practical effect on incidence of sex offenses, or on recidivism rates? (There isn't.) Those things would have mattered to anyone considering the issue rationally. But where sex offenses are concerned, rationality gives way to irrational fear. Shame on the 71% of California voters who approved this spiteful initiative. (One can hope it gets overturned in the courts - it is already being challenged.)

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