Sunday, March 27, 2005

"somebody needs to kill him"

In all the publicity surrounding the Terri Schiavo case, it seems that America has forgotten some of the other news stories that occurred this past week. Earlier this week, a convicted sex offender, John Evander Couey, allegdly confessed to the molestation and murder of a 9-year-old Florida girl, Jessica Lunsford. While the loss of Jessica Lunsford is truly, truly tragic, to me, the big story is all about what happens now that Couney has been arrested and his trial has started. Conservative pundits and bloggers alike have jumped onto this case, spurred on by the vengeful words of Jessica Lunsfords' father. Everyone is looking for blood, and the big question on everyone's lips is whether Jessica's murder could've been prevented. Over the course of the week, the debate has turned from Jessica Lunsford to sex offender registration. In his grief, Mark Lunsford has become the primary advocate for harsher penalties for sex offenders; in several interviews, he has repeated over and over again, "I just want (John Couey) to die" and has even said "They should be tagged, they should be branded." I was even watching Larry King Live the other night when a caller suggested that both kids and sex offenders be implanted with the same subcutaneous microchips that we currently use to trace lost pets. It shocks me that this is even up for debate. Sex offender registration is bottom line, unconstitutional. And the kinds of lines that those who would advocate even greater forms of registration upon convicted sex offenders violates all sorts of rights to personal freedom and privacy. The first problem is that the term "sex offender" is vague. We've had all these self-important medical experts flounce around on TV testifying that 'sex offender'-ness is an incurable condition, and that no amount of rehabilitation will 'fix' a sex offender. But, even if that is the case, the category of 'sex offender' includes more than just serial rapists and child molesters. The category of sex offender involves anyone who has committed a sexually-based crime, which can include those who never meant to break a law. I mean, who is the victim and who is the criminal if a man has consenting sex with a woman six months shy of her 18th birthday and who lies to him about her age? Though the man may have never meant to commit a sex crime, this kind of incident is just as prevalent as the rapists and molesters who make the news. And, unfortunately, a man who becomes the victim of such circumstances is tossed into the same pot as the other rapists, and even has his name included in the sex offender registry, accessible to anyone who cares to do a local neighbourhood search. Moreover, our justice system is based upon a few basic precepts: that people are innocent until proven guilty, that everyone has the right to a fair trial, and that once you pay your debt to society, you are a free person. Unfortunately, we know that that's not the case. Already, felons, even after finishing their prison time or paying fines or fees, are still treated like second-class citizens; they lose their right to vote and the stigma of their crimes follow them for the rest of their lives. Even someone completely rehabilitated finds it difficult, even impossible, to get a job and to lead a subsequently normal life. And on top of that, we're talking about branding sex offenders like animals? You have to wonder whether we really want a culture of punishment or rehabilitation? Although grieving parents like Mark Lunsford might feel more comforted by seeking vengeance for their losses, do we really want a system that sanctions the kind of bloodletting that they are calling for? This isn't justice, this is what Lunsford feels is justified torture and homicide -- he has talked about wanting to bring back the electric chair to execute John Couey. While it is understandable for Lunsford to feel this way, it doesn't make his demands acceptable if put into practice. Amendment XIII of the Constitution states, "excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." Aside from the obvious savagery of such a system, it is frankly inefficient and impractical in protecting the citizenry. We can't jail everyone for life if they break a crime -- we don't have the kind of resources and in many cases, crimes occur because of mistakes ordinary people make rather than any sort of malicious intents or personalities. But, by taking away the rights of felons who have done their time, we stack the odds against them and encourage them to become repeat offenders by removing any other choices from them. A criminal who might've gone to jail for robbing a store for money, may come out of jail with zero job prospects and treated like a perpetual criminal, will face no reason not to commit the crime again. What we need is a shift towards rehabilitation rather than punishment when it comes to criminals, and we're not talking about a change in the laws so much as a change in attitude. Just as it is with the debate over interrogations and torture, the most bloodthirsty answer isn't always the most sensible or even the most effective answer. Instead, we need a greater emphasis on education and providing alternatives to criminals. For sex offenders, support networks and therapy can help criminals come to grips with operating within society. CNN interviewed a sex offender who talked about his urges like any other addiction -- perhaps it's not curable in that sex offenders will always feel sexual attraction towards those they shouldn't, but any addiction can be treated with the right approach, and we don't exactly talk about executing alcoholics or those addicted to gambling. Sex offenders are not at the mercy of their urges any more than anyone else, but without the proper attitude, they don't receive the proper treatments and we perpetuate the vicious cycle of rape or molestation. As far as tagging and branding sex offenders, what justification is there for violating the right of privacy of those who have paid their debt to society? Is the unconstitutional trade-off worth the peace of mind? What will we have concerned parents do with that information: prevent their kids from playing outside? Or perhaps bring together an angry mob who can torch the house of a rehabilitated sex offender? What would be within the realm of reason and where could a rehabilitated sex offender go if every neighbourhood he lives in, he is liable to get thrown out because of concerned parents who don't want him living down the street from their child (whether he would still want to molest their child or not)? At what point does concerned parenting give way to paranoia? President Bush said during his speech supporting Congress' bill bringing the Terri Schiavo case back to federal court, that it was necessary to err on the side of life. When it comes to the justice system, I couldn't agree more. The murder of Jessica Lunsford was heinous, but to prevent it from happening again, we can't resort to the kind of violence and homicide that they are being punished for. As a society, it only silently condones their actions, if we find ourselves willing to sink to those levels. If we truly want to protect the children, we need to show felons the kind of mercy and forgiveness that will help them help themselves, and that includes giving them their lives back when they have paid their debts to society.


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