I've written at some length about the hyper-stigma that accompanies the "sex offender" label in the contemporary United States. Whenever I even hint that this stigma may hinder rather than help public safety, as in this AP story in June, I'm swamped with supportive calls and emails from sex offenders and their families and vaguely threatening or accusing mail from others. And, of course, breathless invitations to appear on cable news shows as "liberal punching bag o' the day." [Can you believe it, this guy actually thinks sex offenders have it too tough?] Now comes this story from the Seattle Times and Bellingham Herald:
BELLINGHAM — Last Friday night, a man claiming to be an FBI agent dropped in on three Level 3 sex offenders living together, supposedly to warn them of an Internet "hit list" targeting sex offenders. The man was not an FBI agent, but he may have been enforcing a hit list of his own creation. Two of the roommates were found dead early Saturday of gunshot wounds, and Bellingham police are investigating a crime that authorities say may be one of the nation's most serious cases of vigilantism aimed at sex offenders. The killings also highlight a potential problem about Washington's 1990 law requiring sex offenders to register their addresses so the public can keep track of them.
Yes, if the story checks out as reported, I guess murder qualifies as a potential problem. Given the demonization of sex offenders, I'm certain that few will shed tears over these murders. I'm also sure that the vigilante had never read the Bureau of Justice Statistics report or large research literature showing low recidivism rates of sex offenders relative to other former prisoners. Yet our FBI imposter/wannabe was well-informed on two counts: (1) he knew that "level-three sex offenders" Hank Eisses, 49, James Russell, 42, and Victor Vasquez, 68 could be found at 2825 Northwest Avenue; and, (2) he knew the specific details of their crimes -- offenses that took place in 1997, 1994, and 1991, respectively. Clearly one cannot blame the print or broadcast media, or the state department of corrections, or local law enforcement, or the state legislature for the actions of an accused vigilante. Nevertheless, the case raises troubling questions about whether the policies of each institution are best serving the public interest. To my knowledge, there is no clear evidence of less new sex offending in communities that impose greater stigma. Lacking such evidence, I fear that the moral panic exemplified by current notification procedures is a net loss for public safety.
Even years before their scheduled release, both male and female prisoners have told me they feared "the internet" and public availability of information about them. Rest assured that the Bellingham murder story will quickly make the rounds of every TV room and sex offender unit in state penitentiaries. It is not a story of deterrence that will keep them from future crime. It is not a story of redemption or martyrdom that will give them strength as they work through the tough times. It is instead a story of the hysterical vigilante lying in wait, a story that embodies their fears about life after prison and their dim prospects for ever becoming a normal citizen in a community. And it makes them wonder why the hell they should go to treatment.