Civil rights and prisoners’ rights advocates correctly point out, however, that civil commitment legislation incarcerates a person not only for crimes he has committed, but also because of crimes he might commit. What is often overlooked, too, is the fact that the vast majority of child molesters are not strangers, but relatives or family friends of the victims. And contrary to popular belief, once-caught sex offenders have a very low recidivism rate. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found in a three-year study (2001-4) that only 5.3 percent of people arrested for sex crimes were rearrested for a later sex offense.
The U.S. Supreme Court approved the constitutionality of the indefinite detention of sex offenders in a case brought in 1997 in Kansas, so long as they receive treatment. And skilled treatment can indeed be effective in reducing recidivism rates. According to researchers at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, reliable studies indicate that high quality programs do work. But in some facilities to which offenders are sent after completing their prison sentences, the treatment may be of poor quality, administered by minimally trained therapists. According to Jerome G. Miller, co-founder of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives and himself a therapist, civil commitment laws have birthed a therapy industry.
Even if sex offenders do not remain physically confined after completing their sentences, their lives are so constrained by residency restrictions that homelessness becomes a real possibility. There are laws that prohibit them from living within a certain distance of schools, playgrounds or other places where children gather. Registries of sex offenders now exist online, with close to three-quarters of a million names. Mandated community notification may include the circulation of flyers with photos of released offenders, which can make it impossible for ex-offenders to find a place to live.
Miami offers an extreme example of the lengths to which residency restrictions can go. Aware of the inability of a group of released offenders to find housing in communities reluctant to accept them, the state’s corrections department finally allowed the men to live below a Biscayne Bay causeway. Their belongings in plastic bags, they sleep on mats on the pavement, with the rumble of cars overhead. The Miami situation, Dr. Miller told America, is a sign of where the laws are leading: taking residency restrictions policies to an extreme.
The danger of harassment and vigilantism becomes all the more likely too. The homes of released offenders have been shot at and even set on fire, in order to drive them away. Vigilantism can lead to murder. In April of 2006, two released offenders were shot dead in Maine. Both were listed in sex-offender registries with their names and addresses. One victim was a man who, at 17, had a relationship with his 15-year-old girlfriend. A legislative proposal in Ohio would require convicted sex offenders to have green florescent license plates on their cars. Such tactics would surely attract harassment or even violence, and be tantamount to a modern form of the scarlet letter.
Emotionally driven laws that not only punish sex offenders but also push them to the edges of society are counterproductive. Researchers at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives point out that if we truly want fewer victims, the focus must be shifted from more and more punishment to the actual funding of treatment programs, as well as research. Fred S. Berlin, M.D., founder and executive director of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorder clinic in Baltimore, Md., has observed that the issue is not solely one of criminal justice, but also a public health matter, an aspect of the situation that is largely overlooked. It is time to stem the rush to enact more demonizing laws that are both unjust and irresponsible, stemming as they do from extreme cases that hold the popular imagination in thrall.