Tuesday, January 17, 2006

dehumanizing sex offenders

one could devote several blogs to the moral panic surrounding people convicted of sex crimes. the stories are depressing, frustrating, and creepy on many levels, so i don't often follow up on them. but this story, sent by the blog muse last week, and this one from the weekend really caught my eye. i've italicized for emphasis in both excerpts.


ALBANY - The state will build a "pervert prison" , a special maximum-security facility for the most dangerous sex offenders, it was announced yesterday. Gov. Pataki yesterday said the facility is needed to confine 500 convicted sex predators considered too likely to strike again to let back on the streets after their prison terms are over...

Frustrated that the Democrat-controlled Assembly repeatedly blocked civil-confinement legislation, Pataki late last year ordered his administration to "push the envelope" in keeping sex offenders deemed dangerous locked up by using existing law pertaining to the involuntary commitment the mentally ill.

Creating a new facility, which would open in 2009, would allow the mental-health system to keep dangerous sex offenders whose prison terms expire away from nonviolent mentally ill patients, Pataki said.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the governor is "putting the cart before the horse" since the state does not yet have a civil-confinement law on the books. "It's interesting he's prepared to spend money to build yet another prison, but not engage in the kind of evaluation, monitoring, supervision and treatment of high-risk offenders that all the experts agree can significantly reduce the risk or incidents of reoffense," Lieberman said.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the sex offenders now in mental facilities were grilled yesterday by the panel of Manhattan appellate-division judges who are deciding on the constitutionality of the civil commitments. The inmates' lawyers argue that Pataki is doing an end run around the corrections commitment procedures by having the inmates' dangerousness evaluated by state doctors - essentially the governor's own shills. [emphasis added].

okay, i know the story comes from the post, but here's what catches my eye as a sociologist and criminologist:

1. dehumanizing language - isn't the term "sex offender" stigmatizing enough? does the post really need to refer to individuals convicted of sexual crimes as "pervs" or perverts? the term is gratuitous and really imprecise to boot.

2. "after their prison terms are over" - the proposed prison is not for people serving prison sentences, but for those who have already done their time. this sort of do-over for the state has generally withstood constitutional scrutiny for sex offenders, but i'm skeptical that it would for anyone else. as the nyclu points out, states could provide evaluation, treatment, and supervision of sex offenders while they are under criminal sentences.

3. "allow the mental health system" - mental health treatment does not appear to be the primary (or secondary or tertiary) motivation here. sex offenders are deemed mentally ill because they are perceived as dangerous and the mental health system offers another avenue for incapacitating them. i would prefer to see long prison sentences of indeterminate duration, rather than a transfer of authority to the mental health system at the conclusion of a shorter sentence.

4. "push the envelope" - governor pataki must be hearkening back to his days as a top gun fighter pilot here. in this case, it sounds as though the "envelope" is the constitutional protections typically afforded criminal defendants. [what else could he mean here?]

5. "evaluated by state doctors" - however well-intentioned, one could easily imagine abuse potential in a system with no independent evaluation of dangerousness.

perhaps this is me just being paranoid -- too much huxley and orwell in middle school or something. are my fears of abuse exaggerated? if so, it is tough to explain a case reported by the minneapolis strib yesterday. in recent years, minnesota has dramatically expanded its use of civil commitment proceedings for "sexually dangerous persons." today the net has widened to the point that it captures people who were never even charged with sex crimes.

Dwayne Peterson, 25, of Mankato, Minn., has never been convicted of a sex offense or even charged with one. But after completing a prison term for kidnapping a 78-year-old man at gunpoint in 2001, he now sits in the Security Hospital in St. Peter pending civil court proceedings to commit him indefinitely to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program as a sexually dangerous person. Peterson wouldn't be the first of the nearly 300 men confined under the program -- from which no one has ever been permanently released -- to be committed without a prior sex-crime conviction. [emphasis added]

at age 25, mr. peterson has completed his court-imposed sentence. it is no exaggeration to say that he may now spend the rest of his life behind bars for a crime that was never even brought to trial. if the allegations (of sexual activity with boys) had been brought to trial, he would almost certainly be acquitted. according to his attorney, there are "no corroborating victim-witnesses for Peterson's accounts."

in minnesota, as in new york, i remain convinced that the goals of such commitment proceedings are incapacitation and retribution rather than rehabilitation or treatment. the fact that none of the 300 men confined under the program has ever been released suggests as much, though i should point out that i am no expert on the inner workings of this system and have never even visited these facilities. nevertheless, i have to ask whether it is good public policy to transfer authority from the criminal justice system to the mental health system in such cases.

just to be clear, i am not suggesting lighter sentences for sex offenders. i'm just as creeped out by the lurid description of sex crimes reported in these stories as everyone else. but i'm also creeped out by the hopeless constitutional no-man's land in which we place individuals convicted of these acts -- or simply suspected of these acts, in the case of mr. peterson. personally, i'm a believer in old-school discretionary parole and indeterminate sentences within the criminal justice system. some will turn out much longer and some will turn out much shorter than the current mandatories. this system was also subject to abuse, of course, but it seems subject to greater reform and oversight than the far slipperier civil commitment procedures we employ today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fear is a great description for the pervasive response by the politicians and the public in general when it comes to anyone "marked for life" as a sex offender. Even though studies indicate the recidivism rate for the overall population of sex offenders is actually less than 10% and even closer to 3% for first time offenders, the media continues to sensationalize the actions of the small percentage of predatory offenders. Any one convicted of a sex related crime is immediately tossed into the murky bucket of being a sex offender. The challenges they face upon release from prison can be even worse than other convicted felons when they try to start their lives over. Housing and employment are huge challenges. Just as our society claims not to condone stereotyping and profiling of any group, we should also make a serious effort to look closer and differentiate between the majority of sex offenders and the small number of predators that seem to be constantly covered by our media.