Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Not Another Michael Jackson Obituary, I Promise

What the aftermath of MJ's death can teach us about sex offenses

Like millions of others, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks thinking about Michael Jackson’s legacy, revisiting his mastery as a performer and coasting on Michael’s smooth voice to forgotten corners of my memory bank. But like millions of others I’ve also spent the last couple of weeks arguing with friends who are outraged that he was loved and that he will be remembered for something other than sex abuse allegations. Of course I don’t need to unpack the arguments here, I’m sure we’ve all heard them hundreds of times by now.  These arguments feel fruitless no matter what side you’re on.  This is one of those issues on which neither side has any give. But they also speak volumes about the ways that our society thinks about sexual abuse and sexual transgressions generally.  An accusation of this kind can kill careers, make someone homeless, and mark a person forever as a member of an un-desirable group. As usual in the court of public opinion, and often in the actual courtroom; you are guilty until proven innocent.

 As a society we’ve taken some extraordinary steps to deal with sexual abuse especially when it involves minors.  In many instances we’ve thrown the constitution out the window when it comes to these offenses. Above and Beyond any prison sentence that might be handed down, most states require that the convicted person register as a sex-offender, 22 states restrict where a sex offender may live and how they may interact with their community.  In Miami where the restrictions on where sex-offenders can live are so stringent that there is often no housing available that does not violate the law, Dade County has ordered sex-offenders to live under a bridge. Namely The Julia Tuttle Causeway, the underpass has no running water no electricity, no protection from predators or extreme weather, and yet some parole officers are ordering parolees to live in the underpass. 

 No doubt by now some are saying “so what? These are the indefensible scum of society, don’t expect me to defend them.”  Here are just some of the reasons why I think that these one size fits all laws don’t make sense:

 ·      These laws equate all sex crimes; a sex offender is a sex offender, period. To me there is a world of difference between someone a 35 year old who rapes a 5 year old and a 22 year old who has a consensual relationship with a 15 year old. I know, I know, according to the law a 15 year old cannot consent; but do any of us remember being 15? Do we really think that we had the same inability to consent than we did when we were 5? Does it make sense to equate these two scenarios? To me it does not.

·      Our justice system runs on coercion, we may have a right, on paper, to a trial. In real life the threat of extremely long prison sentences, and the coercive nature of prosecutorial power means that most people will take a guilty plea no matter what the accusations. In New York City for example this is so much the case that 95% of cases end in guilty plea rather than verdict. Only 5% of defendants opt to go to trial. It is clear to anyone who has dealt with this system that the idea of going to trial angers the prosecution.  We can kid ourselves but if you offer me a 10 to life sentence if I go to trial and a 5-year probation if I plead guilty I will be very unlikely to risk the former. Currently when entering a guilty plea, the judge asks if the defendant has been coerced.  I know many, perhaps most, defendants answer no with an ironic internal laugh or with a lump in their throat. 

·      These punitive policies leave no room for rehabilitation.  What can we expect someone to do for survival if they are barred from any type of decent housing? barred from jobs where they can interact with people? barred from contact with their friends and families? We can’t just throw people away even if we wanted to; it is counter-intuitive to think that cutting of the survival of a group of people means that the  problem will go away. Many will flinch, but consider what you would do if a loved one was accused of such a crime. Would you want them cut off from any means of survival? Would you want them to be forced to live under an underpass?

·      These laws do not take into account the fact that many sex-offenders were themselves victims of sex abuse. Currently what we do with this equation is we romanticize and deify the importance of the child victim of sex abuse, but when this child grows up we offer no prevention or treatment if they act out sexually. Even though acting out this way is a well-established symptom of being a sex abuse victim.

 I know this issue evokes a passionate response from many, but like the War on Drugs, and the War on Terror, these draconian measures don’t make sense. They don’t make us safer, they cost billions and they mostly punish only those who cannot afford a decent defense. I’m not pretending that this is a non-issue or that there are easy answers. As difficult as these issues are to grapple with, it does not benefit us to lose our minds at the mention of certain things and pick up our torches and pitchforks.  

About the Writer

Teresa Montez is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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7 comments on Not Another Michael Jackson Obituary, I Promise

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By Kim on July 07, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Not picking up any pitchforks...We do not know for a true fact that Michael Jackson committed any crimes of any sort against a minor.  Some of these people who have accused him have refuted their accusations...  The main thing I want to say is it is important to respect the fact a human being has died. ~

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By cristogianni on July 07, 2009 at 12:33 pm

This is a really good piece, Teresa. Some interesting facts I wasn't aware of. What you mentioned about Florida wouldn't surprise me. The legal system down there has been described by many to be "draconian." And the point you make about a 22 yr old with a 15 yr old is very valid to this topic of discussion. Most people agree with you, yet many won't admit it. Unfortunately, the "Salem Witch" syndrome is not entirely erased from our society's collective consciousness. Good job!


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By Teresa Montez on July 07, 2009 at 03:24 pm

Thanks for the feedback, Kim.  Yes that is exactly my point, it was never proven and the allegations were questionable in many ways, but the mere accusation still causes people to seethe, to consider him a monster, even to express happiness that he died.   We kind of loose our minds when it comes to this issue and just the mere accusation is enough to brand someone forever even in death. 

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By Teresa Montez on July 07, 2009 at 03:43 pm

Thanks, Cristo.  Salem witch syndrome is a good way to describe the current situation. There is huge hypocrisy on this issue, for example ,in NYC,  a 15 year old is not old enough to consent but girls as young as 12 years old are prosecuted for prostitution. How can they be prosecuted if they are not old enough to consent? Activists around this issue have tried to have the law changed to reflect that these girls are the victims of exploitation by adults but the prosecutors refuse to give up any of their power.  Of course there are those in our society with a huge financial incentive to criminalize behavior.  As a result we have the bloated prison industry that currently houses over 2 million people.  

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By azurlite on July 09, 2009 at 12:50 am

To see what is happening in florida as mentioned on this article please visit this youtube link below.

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By Teresa Montez on July 09, 2009 at 03:59 pm

Thanks for the links Azurlite. Current is a great resource. I first heard about the Miami situation from Prison Legal News another great source for news you won't hear from mainstream media. 

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By Teresa Montez on July 10, 2009 at 11:54 am

Thanks Ed, my sentiments exactly. Very few people will remember this but in New York in the 1980's there were an incredible number of arrests on the subway for groping and touching female passengers.  Two of the defendants filled a lawsuit and during the investigation it became clear that the allegations were false, the records revealed that sometimes multiple men were arrested in the same subway car at the exact same time, kind of an incredible co-incidence. It turned out all of the arrests were fabricated, the vast majority of those arrested were African-american or Latino.  But many were rushed through the system and coerced into pleading guilty. So sometimes even a conviction is not reliable proof, but certainly we should start with Innocent until proven guilty. 

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