Saturday, July 22, 2017

Major Wins On Three Fronts

Not Often...

It is not often that I get to report good news in the fight to prevent child sexual abuse... before it can happen. However, there is great news out of Alabama, Pennsylvania, and California that are well-worth celebrating, in addition to the recent win in North Carolina at the Supreme Court of the United States.


A case in Alabama is currently before the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, and the argument is that Alabama has violated the ex posto facto clause of the United States Constitution. In other words, Alabama has violated the United States Constitution by enacting retroactive punishment for a crime committed over 30 years ago. This case is significant and related to a win in Pennsylvania, which is why this case is already being considered a win.


A case recently decided by the PA Supreme Court involved a man forced to register for a crime committed in 2007 before the registration requirement applicable to his situation was enacted in 2012. The PA Supreme Court decided that the case violated the same ex posto facto clause and retroactively applied punishment - yes, punishment - for a crime. This is essential, because until now, the sex offender registry has been considered preventative, not punitive according to most state and federal legislation. The ruling in PA makes it likely that the case being considered by the 11th Circuit will be ruled similarly, and gives opportunity for the PA ruling to be cited in the decision. While this has yet to play out, it is also important because of a win in California.


In California, lawmakers are being spurred to adopt major reforms to the sex offender registry, essentially treating offenders with lower risk differently than those that are high risk: The lower-risk offenders could eventually be let off the sex offender registry, and the focus for law enforcement and monitoring would be on high-risk offenders instead. These are reforms that are already in place in most other states, but California still has a one-size-fits-all system where every sex offender is required to register for life.

Interestingly, it is criminal justice leaders, such as district attorneys, the ACLU of California, the California Police Chiefs Association, and several others. The bill is currently moving swiftly through the legislature.

Why Is The Registry Bad?

In case you have not heard me say this before, sex offender registration is bad because it focuses on the wrong threat: Sex offenders. Sex offenders are known to commit less than 10% of new sexual crimes in most states, and even less in major states. In New York, that rate is 5%, and in California, that rate is .6%. This focus on sex offenders means that people are focused on those who do not often commit new sexual crimes as if they do, which means the real culprits of sexual crimes, those trusted in the community with no criminal record, fly under the radar.

Research shows that perpetrators of sexual crimes have trauma in childhood, have no criminal record, are predominantly male (though recent research is calling this into question), and are largely trusted by their victim(s). This shows that programs that reach at-risk youth with trauma in their backgrounds can make a substantial difference in reducing sexual crimes before they happen, and shows that our focus must be on preventing the initial perpetration of sexual crimes rather than reacting where they happen.

Is This Foreshadowing?

With these major wins, in addition to the recent social media win at the United States Supreme Court, the it may be that the tide is turning against emotionally-driven policies that feel good but are ineffective in preventing sex crimes. It may be, as the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times puts it, that we are seeing clearer thinking about sex offenders. If so, then maybe we are seeing the beginning of the end of after-the-fact punishment schemes that distract from preventing sexual crimes... before they can happen.

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