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.