Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What Have We Become?

Sex offender laws were birthed out of a perfectly understandable concern; if I had children, I'd want to know if one of my neighbors was a convicted rapist or pedophile. Unfortunately, these laws that were designed to protect us have morphed far beyond their original intent.

My first encounter with how the law has been abused came when I met a man in Utah who had been on the wrong end of another person's prejudice. "Matthew's" first mistake was that he happened to be gay in an extremely conservative state. His second was falling in love with a boy two years younger than him. His third mistake was getting caught in an intimate moment by his boyfriend's homophobic father when he (Matthew) was 18. The father had Matthew arrested, and a hostile judge threw the book at him for statutory rape.

"Matthew" spent the next twelve years in prison - years he might have spent graduating from college and becoming a productive citizen. Since then he's repeatedly tried to get on his feet and rebuild his life, only to be slapped back down every time. Whenever he finds a job or a new place to live, it's only a matter of time before somebody discovers that he's listed on the sex offender registry and raises hell until he's fired and/or evicted. Who wants a sex offender in the neighborhood, after all? And what difference could it make why he's on the registry?

Last time I talked to Matthew he was living in a homeless shelter and trying to save up money from the latest menial job he'd managed to find. Through it all he's never resorted to crime, despite the state of Utah's efforts to turn him into the hardened criminal it deems him.

It would be easy to chalk stories like this up to the famously repressive atmosphere of a state like Utah, and in fact I didn't realize just what a huge problem these abuses of our sex offender laws had become until I read this essay (and its follow up with corroborating links). No doubt some states are worse than others, but the list of activities that can get a person branded as a sex offender continues to grow - even streaking is now treated as a dangerous and predatory crime in the eyes of the law.

Read the stories in the linked articles. Does anyone seriously think that branding these kids as sex offenders for life will in any way improve anybody's safety? How many of them will ever be able to hold onto a good job or live in a decent neighborhood, thanks to their "criminal" record? Is there anyone this side of Sally Kern who can look at this long trail of ruined lives without being outraged?

This is what happens when people begin to view government as the solution to every problem and the provider of every need. Soon everyday life is so regimented by well-intended efforts to mitigate every risk and eliminate every ill that the law becomes a club that can be wielded by anyone with a grievance against anyone else whose behavior they happen to disapprove of. This is how free nations cease to be free, when safety becomes such an overriding priority that no sacrifice is too great to achieve it. In the end the world is just as perilous as it ever was, but the things that once made it a better place to live are gone.

2 comments:

jonjon said...

I work in Public Safety and one of my previous jobs was to register sex offenders. I have always been appalled by how easy it is to wind up on this list. For every violent sexual offender, I had a dozen kids who were basically on the list for dating someone a few years younger than them. I recall several 17 year olds who had 15 year old girlfriends that wound up on the list for life. It is essentially a life sentence for being a 17 year old and doing what a 17 year old does. I never had anyone in quite as bad a situation as Matthew but unfortunately it is more the norm than not.

CrackerLilo said...

I hear so much about people like "Matthew," and the straight guys jonjon talks about, too. It's horrible, and if you bring up the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the criteria needs to be tightened so guys don't end up being marked for life from dating someone they met in high school French class, someone will immediately yell about how you're coddling predators. But "Matthew's" more a victim than his former boyfriend, who may well remember him fondly. We need to get over that fear and stand up. I'd love to know how, where, and with whom.