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An Urgent Call to Support the Well-Being of Children and the Rights of Us All
See the end of this article for a public statement you can sign to support the reform of existing sex offender laws. The names of some prominent people who have already signed are at the beginning of that statement. There is also information on how to sign the statement.
There is today in our country a growing threat to our legal system, to the rights of all of us, to the quality of life of children, and to common sense. This threat has been fanned by prosecutors, nurtured by the media, and ignored by those who usually speak out against such dangers.
In its most narrow sense this threat can be defined as the particular approach to sexual deviance embodied in ever-more-draconian laws against all behaviors labeled "sex offenses" — including those committed by minors — and in the sex offender registries of every state and the Federal government. In this approach to sex offenses slander, hysteria and demonization often replace reason, solid research and proportionality.
But more broadly, the danger consists of an all-out assault on fairness, on the reputations of some of our most caring people, on necessary social relationships and on our critical ability to confront the deepening social paranoia of 21st century America.
In 1999, a group of us in Boston — prominent political activists, civil libertarians, and workers in the mental health and legal systems, as well as teachers and others who work with children — tried to draw public attention to this threat with a "Call to Safeguard our Children and Our Liberties." Eight years have passed and the crisis we addressed then has gotten far worse. The demonization of those accused of illegal sexual activity — both the innocent and the guilty — and the criminalization or stigmatization of more and more forms of sexual expression has reached new heights. All sense of fairness and due process are often tossed to the winds. The worst thing a person has ever done in their lives becomes the only thing they have ever done. Many who always despised "pedophiles" have been swept up by the hysteria and are stunned to suddenly find themselves or their children labeled sex offenders. The lives of many thousands of people have been unfairly ruined. And we have created a despised under-class labeled "sex offenders". All of these developments are justified under the high-sounding rhetoric of "protecting our children from sexual predators" despite the fact that most registered sex offenders have never committed sexual offenses against minors.
In the process, the American legal system has moved from identifying specific crimes which cause real harm toward naming whole classes of "bad persons" to shame and isolate them for life. A similar change in the American legal approach has taken place since 9/11, with regard to those accused of "terrorism." In these cases most of the rights of the accused have vanished. Fortunately, though, there has been public criticism about the suspension of due-process, habeas corpus and other rights for accused "terrorists". But there has been no public outcry by those claiming concern for human rights when rights are suspended for accused sex offenders, especially those accused of any offense against a minor. Indeed, even the definition of "who is a child" is being radically changed. Though ages vary from state to state between 14 and 18 federal law now replaces these in many cases, creating a national age of 18, below which a person is deemed a "child" with regard to sex.
Certainly many caring people are providing important support to children who have been sexually violated and want to protect other children from such harm. But is the welfare of children really the driving dynamic behind current public perceptions and policies? And how are these policies actually impacting the lives of young people? What if the overwhelming focus on dangers posed by some sex offenders diverts our attention from other prevalent dangers to children, some of which would be simple to alleviate (e.g., crushing, humiliating poverty) and others much more complex (e.g., family violence). At the same time, many youngsters are now prosecuted and/or subjected to public shaming for behaviors that young people (including most of today’s adults when they were young) have engaged in for millennia without public stigma.
The "clergy abuse scandal" and the almost daily sensationalist coverage of allegations of sex abuse in the media, has led to due-process simply vanishing where sex is alleged. Instead of leading to a deeper understanding of sexuality and sexual violation, the framing of the priests’ crisis has dramatically increased ignorance and demonization, lumping together the innocent and the guilty, those guilty of minor infractions with those who caused serious harm, and those accused of one violation in an entire career of supporting young people with those who caused harm on a regular basis.
Meanwhile children across the land learn that adults who like them are suspect. And more and more men who pose no danger at all to kids stay away from them, refuse them rides and shun innocent interactions that involve physical contact to avoid any possible misinterpretation of genuine affection or concern. Children, men and our society are the losers.
As soon as someone is accused of sexual behavior with a minor, their name is splashed all over TV and the newspapers, destroying their careers and good name, and their accuser is publicly labeled a victim. All of this happens whether the accusation is true or not. And the destroyed lives of the falsely accused pile up by the day. Statutes of limitations have been virtually abolished for these cases. DA’s, judges and juries indict or convict on the mere allegation of sexual violation without any consideration that supporting evidence is lacking. "Repressed memories", unsupported or even contradicted by physical evidence, sometimes become the basis for conviction
Many convicted of sex offences receive very long sentences in the first place often unrelated to the seriousness of their crime and sometimes even longer than those guilty of manslaughter. Some states now allow the death penalty for some sex offenses against minors when murder or even physical violence is not alleged. In some states, accused persons may be held for long periods in isolation and without specific charges.
If they do get out of prison, once they have completed their sentence those designated "sex offenders" are mandated by federal law to register with the police. This requirement covers those accused of even the slightest sexual impropriety with a person under 18 for which they may have been given a suspended sentence. They must provide their names, addresses and other personal information which is then made public on the internet and in other ways. It is common that they are hounded, driven out of their jobs and homes and humiliated for decades. They are almost without the protection of Constitutional rights. They have no way to re-integrate into society. Their families and friends are almost as "shamed" and ostracized as they are. Such public humiliation and isolation has led to suicides. Several registered persons have been murdered by those who found their addresses, in two cases randomly.
Sex offenders are often very limited regarding travel and where they can live and they are often prohibited from being in many public spaces. A new wave of local legislation is sweeping over the land make it illegal for registered persons who have served their sentences to live virtually anywhere at all. In Miami, they can only live under a bridge.
The numbers required to register grow exponentially — including juveniles and many whose offenses were committed decades ago when they were considered rather minor transgressions. Together with their spouses, children and parents, registered sex offenders constitute a population larger than most large U.S. cities. There are nearly 700,000 registered sex offenders, several hundred thousand being sought for registration, several hundred thousand in prison, plus family members of sex offenders numbering about 2,000,000.
And the insanity spreads, instituting a new war on children and on young people and their sexuality. The youngest person now required to register is six years old and 4-year olds are being charged with sexual harassment. Juveniles whose feelings or actions are considered deviant have been subjected to the same aversive therapies once used to "cure" gay men, as well as public humiliation – their names, addresses and photos provided the public on the internet and in other media. Though in other areas, the privacy of juveniles is considered paramount, in the case of "sex offenders" it is completely abandoned.
In eighteen states, life-time civil commitment is now mandated for some categories of sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences. Though this status is supposed to be reserved only for truly violent predators, existing law now defines any offense against a minor, including those without any violence, as a violent act. By May, 2006, nearly 4,000 sex offenders were held under such statutes, and the number has undoubtedly increased. Though such persons are supposed to be in treatment for verifiable mental illnesses, and may be released to supervised parole, very few have ever been released, and many go virtually untreated.
Some of us who signed the original "Call to Protect our Children and Our Liberties" feel we must try again to stimulate a more objective discussion of the issues. We hope to get others to join us – especially people who work with children and who support justice and common sense. We want to get more people to raise the cry against this ravaging of the social fabric by a destructive and wrong-headed crusade.
We affirm the need to protect children — and all people of all ages — from sexual harm and the terror of violent rape and to deal seriously with those acts which cause such harm. We will emphasize the civil and human costs of current policies which deprive people of their rights and humiliate them and which undermine supportive relationships between adults and young people.
The present crusade is spreading fear and loathing across our society. Our society does not need more fear and loathing. It needs trust and dignity and redemption. At present there is no telling how far this self-destructive approach to social problems related to sexuality can go unless people capable of courage, compassion and common sense stand up to stop it and turn our country’s attention to real solutions to our problems. Please read the attached public statement and consider signing on.
PAUL SHANNON lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
REFORM SEX OFFENDER LAWS NOW
A Call to Protect American Society, our Children and our Liberties
This is the statement of a group of concerned Americans, including educators, health workers, and community activists, based on a similar Call issued in Boston in 1999. We urge others to join us in this campaign.
Current Signatories: PAUL SHANNON (teacher & peace educator), Howard Zinn (historian and writer), Dr. Richard Pillard (psychiatrist), Marie Kennedy (urban planning professor) Chris Tilly (economics professor), French Wall (editor), Monty Neil (environmentalist), Jim D’Entrement (writer and activist), Bob Chatelle (criminal-justice advocate), Rev. Edward Hougen, Rev. Margaret Hougen, Eric Entemann (mathematics professor), Taylor Stoehr (literature professor & criminal justice advocate/activist), Carol Thomas (peace & justice activist), Billy S Thomas (physics professor), Yasmin Nair (academic, activist & writer), Dr. Jerome Miller (clinical social worker, professor of social work, writer & founder, National Center for Institutions & Alternatives), Jeffrey St. Clair (writer), Roswitha M. Winsor (clinical social worker), Ernest Winsor (lawyer), Jaqueline Sparling (writer, criminal-justice activist, professor), Rebecca M. Young (lawyer), Brandon Campbell (lawyer)
As part of the effort to support the happiness, well-being and freedom of children, we are committed to protect society and its children from the dangers of sexual harm. We are also committed to preserve civil liberty and genuine criminal justice. We believe many aspects of the current approach to sex offenders seriously undermine justice and make our society less compatible with the welfare of young people. These include state and national sex offender registries as currently structured, life-time civil commitment statutes for sex offenders after completing prison sentences, and the public shaming of anyone accused of illegal sexual activity. We support carefully limited laws that target harmful acts, not whole classes of people, and which rehabilitate rather than vindictively punish and shame offenders. We assert that only by supporting justice for all people can we maintain a safe society.
*We speak out against the mounting panic which vaguely defines sexual dangers, and ostracizes and scapegoats a wide range of people who have been labeled "sex offenders."
There are now Sex Offender Registries in every state and at the Federal level. Most people convicted of any illegal sexual act, or owning, making or selling illegal erotic material, are required to submit to state and Federal Registries for classification. Those classified as "predators," as dangerous offenders, or offenders against children, must register frequently, often for life with police or registry officials, and must submit personal information including a photograph, residential address, employment, telephone and email. This information is then made public; that is, posted on the internet, published in newspapers, or noted on billboards or flyers distributed in the neighborhood. Often, such public notification includes persons whose alleged crimes are labeled violent, but where no force or violence occurred. In some jurisdictions, public notification includes those accused of possessing a single photograph of a naked child, accused of public urination, or accused of "unwanted affection" involving persons under eighteen.
*There are now about two million persons – adults and children – who are identified as sex offenders, either in prison, on parole, registered or being sought as unregistered.
In many states, and nationally, registration and classification is required of persons under eighteen including children as young as six years old, and including minors convicted of consensual sex with other minors. They, too, are sometimes subject to public posting of their photographs, addresses and other personal information.
*Many places severely limit the residence, travel and work of sex offenders and place them under constant surveillance.
Most states and municipalities forbid sex offenders to live in certain areas near schools or day care centers, and otherwise limit the travel of sex offenders within states and across state lines. Registered sex offenders are often required to wear ankle bracelets with global positioning units that trace their every move. Mandatory chips for similar surveillance may be implanted in the bodies of offenders in some jurisdictions. In some states, the residential limits are so severe that sex offenders have great difficulty finding housing. Some towns and cities make it virtually impossible for registered sex offenders to live there.
*"Sex offender" now refers to a class of people virtually without rights, and whom it is difficult to defend as citizens deserving respect.
Almost all notion of rehabilitation and reintegration into society has been discarded for sex offenders. The term "sex offender" includes an extremely wide range of people who have been judged guilty of behaviors from bad taste to serious abuse, yet public hysteria has reached the point that all persons so labeled are demonized, whatever the specific circumstances. In the public mind (and sometimes in the statements of public officials), every sex offender is a person considered to have committed heinous crimes.
*Confused concepts of pedophilia, and the dangers posed by strangers causes exaggerated alarm.
Perhaps the key to this panic about sex offenders is that they are often assumed to have raped children. That is, "sex offender" is often equated with a violent "pedophile." The term pedophile itself has become a stereotype of a person who violently rapes young children. In fact, the vast majority of persons attracted to children are not violent. Though a pedophile is defined medically as a person primarily attracted to children under puberty (about 12), it is confounded with anyone ever attracted, however minimally, to any "minor," or person under the age of consent – which has been set in Federal sex laws at eighteen. (This would seem to include virtually all Americans.) Although only a small percentage of sex offenders were convicted of crimes against minors (and an even smaller percentage against young children), hysteria about defending children from pedophiles has broadened to a wider hysteria about all sex offenders, which is fanned by sensationalist media. Repeated research studies firmly establish that most sexual violation of children is by family members, not strangers. Recidivism rates for sex offenders with children have also been shown in these studies to be quite low.
*Sexual harm to children must be combatted, but we must also fight other severe forms of harm to children.
Focusing on "saving" children from sexual molestation by strangers distracts us from far more serious forms of violence against children and young people. Most child abuse has nothing to do with sex. It is important to speak out against sexual harm, which has often remained hidden and denied within families and communities. However, non-sexual violence against children is at least as pervasive as sexual violence. Poverty, malnutrition, ethnic discrimination, poor education, and inadequate health care are all forms of abuse that today threaten millions of young people in our affluent nation. Yet there is little national commitment to halt these deadly and more pervasive forms of harm to children. Instead, our attention is riveted by any case involving sex. The hysteria in the United States has thus broadened from an already misguided panic about sex with children, to embrace an almost totalitarian approach to all sex offenders.
*Even as we speak of older and older youth as children in need of protection, younger and younger children are treated as adults when accused of sex offenses.
If convicted, they are often forced to comply with the same public registries and life-time commitment as adults. If considered a "victim," the child’s identity is protected. If a "perpetrator," the same child will be publicly exposed. Teens and children may now be criminalized and forced to register for activities considered experimentation or play since the dawn of history and in most cultures.
*Demonizing any class of people as devoid of humanity and beyond redemption is wrong.
Any law is wrong that permanently takes away the rights or liberty of offenders, whether by life-time incarceration by civil commitment after sentences, or by public registry, shaming and limitation of residence. Demonization is destructive even when applied to truly violent offenders. Those who commit sexually violent crimes do not come out of a vacuum. They come out of our communities and families. To view dangerous offenders as totally ‘other’ than us prevents us from getting at the roots of such crimes. Permanent stigmatization not only makes impossible re-integration into society of those who are rehabilitated, it signals a breakdown in civil society.
Demonizing sex offenders has many other negative effects on society. As used to be the case for homosexuals, sex offenders can now be called "perverts," "deviants" and "perps" by the news media. This breaks down civil discourse and poisons it with pejorative speech. Reporting laws now turn doctors, social workers and therapists into agents of the state, as they are required to report anyone mentioning past, present or possible "abuse" in previously confidential settings. This discourages people in need of counseling for sexual problems from seeking out professional help.
*Extreme measures now include abolition of statutes of limitation, retroactive registration, life-time incarceration without parole, and even the death penalty.
Most states, and the Federal government, have abolished or are considering abolishing statutes of limitation. Retroactive registries seem to violate the Constitutional rubric against ex post facto laws. Several courts have ruled this not to be the case because registration is not viewed as a punishment. Yet public registration including shaming humiliates and endangers those who are labeled and whose photographs and addresses are made public. This is a severe form of further punishment for offenders who have completed their sentences. Four states have mandated the death penalty for some sex offenses [not involving death], and other states are considering the death penalty for a second sex offense. Mainstream legal scholars are debating whether pedophiles should receive death or life-time incarceration in camps. One wonders why all this doesn’t raise red flags at least among human rights advocates, since this is so similar in nature to previous panics aimed at other groups.
*These assaults on civil liberties have befallen us because few have been willing to risk being seen as ‘soft on child molesters,’ or on sex offenders generally.
It is now the case, that almost no politician – liberal or conservative – dares oppose any measure against sex offenders, however extreme. We hold that civil liberties are indivisible. As soon as one class of people is scapegoated and separated from "decent citizens" in terms of rights, other classes of offenders – such as drug dealers and users, political dissidents, or "dead-beat dads" – may be similarly deprived of all rights. However much we oppose specific perceived wrong-doings, or even threats to society such as terrorist attacks, in a free society we cannot allow such deterioration of due process. We argue that these trends in sex offender laws have breached our legal system in an extremely serious way. Repressive state powers cannot be neatly applied only to ‘bad’ people. They threaten us all.
*It is possible to make society and our children safe without eroding due process and civil liberties.
Canada and some other countries have registration requirements for genuinely violent sex criminals after their release from prison – but they do not allow public notification or publishing of offenders’ photographs and personal information They also severely limit civil commitment after sentences to persons judged to be a real and extreme threat to society, and they assure that such commitment is temporary and regularly reviewed.
Therefore, we call for the immediate reform of America’s sex offender laws – especially the state and Federal sex offender registries and the life-time civil commitment laws. We support the following immediate actions:
1. Abolish all provisions of state and Federal sex offender registries that publicly shame offenders. There should be no internet or other public posting of the identity, photograph, address, workplace or personal information of any offender, nor should this information be available to the public at police stations or registry offices. In cases of genuinely violent sex crimes, especially against young children, and with a specific finding of a likelihood to re-offend, registration may be required, but information will be shared only among police officials, or if a court rules it appropriate, with institutions serving children or others who might be vulnerable to abuse. Strong penalties should be levied against police or others privy to the registration information who violate the privacy of the offenders.
2. Abolish all life-time civil commitment for sex offenders who have completed prison sentences and/or parole and probation. In cases of violent offenses and specific findings of a likelihood to re-offend, carefully constructed court hearings, with medical advice and full due process, should determine if the person may be further incarcerated, and then only for a short time and with regular review. The ultimate goal of all measures aimed at sex offenders should be their return to the community when they are not likely to re-offend.
3, Stop public vilification and demonization of sex offenders. Oppose the use in the media or by public officials of obviously pejorative language with regard to offenders. Label only actually violent acts as violent crimes – define violence simply and logically as a physical attack or threat that causes real harm. Use of the term "pedophile" should be extremely limited and accurate. Children should be defined as persons under the age of puberty.
4. De-criminalize all consensual sexual activities among teenagers. Stop all required sex offender registration for minors.
5. Abolish all laws that provide the death penalty or life in prison without parole for sex offenders.
6. Support broad sex education for children, and empower them to make their own decisions and stand up for their rights.
7. Provide accurate information and support valid research about sex offender characteristics and recidivism rates.
8. Help sex offenders re-enter society by abolishing measures which make it difficult for them to find a place to live and a decent job. Encourage support groups for sex offenders, including help with finding housing, employment and effective treatment, before their release and afterward.
We call on those who agree with us to sign our Call publicly, with full disclosure of real identity. For signatories as well as those not able publicly to sign, we encourage formation of discussion groups at the state and local level and in professional groups about sex offender law reform.. At a future date, we hope to call a national conference about reforming America’s sex offender laws.
You may sign onto this statement publicly, or you may add your email address confidentially to our contact list, by calling PAUL SHANNON at 617-497-5273, or emailing Alex Marbury at email@example.com. Or consult our website, www.ReformSexOffenderLaws.org, to sign the statement in a secure manner, and for discussion materials and related articles.