August 21, 2014

Second Thoughts From An Unlikely Source

In 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was snatched off the street by a stranger, the paradigmatic example of the kind of abduction that gives parents nightmares.  He was never found and his abductor never captured.

All that prompted Jacob's mother, Patty, to become involved with the issue of sex offender registries.  At the time, a few states had registries, but most did not.  Patty's efforts paid off in 1994, when Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, the first comprehensive national sex offender scheme.

In the years since, state registries have exploded and Congress has repeatedly enacted new laws that expand the nature of the registries and provide harsher punishments for offenders who don't follow the registration scheme.  Now more that 750,000 people are on sex offender lists in the United States.  If it works, great, but what if it doesn't?

It's not surprising that people in my line of work would argue that sex offender registries are overbroad, prevent ex-cons from being able to reintegrate back into society, and generally constitute extensive punishment beyond their prison terms.  What is surprising is that Patty Wetterling is starting to have second thoughts, too:
These registries were a well-intentioned tool to help law enforcement find children more quickly,' she told us. 'But the world has changed since then.' What’s changed, Wetterling says, is what science can tell us about the nature of sex offenders.
What the science says is that, contrary to popular myth, sex offenders are not egregious recidivists.  In fact, they commit new crimes at a lower rate than burglars, fraudsters, and (naturally) drug offenders.  In addition, we know now that the overwhelming number of victims of sexual abuse are victimized by people close to them - family, friends, or community figures.  Jacob's kidnapping out of the blue is such a terror precisely because it is so rare.

Fear has played an important role in getting us where we are now:
Wetterling remembers watching this spiral of fear after Jacob’s disappearance. 'The fear was real. It was devastating,' she said. 'People became absolutely terrified. There were people in my community who wouldn’t let their children bike anymore or play in the park.' Twenty years on, she has come to see this reaction as 'not information-based.' And two decades after she succeeded in persuading Congress to pass Jacob’s Law, she’s now asking people to take a second look to see whether laws like the one named for her son are doing more harm than good and should be curbed.
Jeralyn at TalkLeft has pointed out before that laws named after people are generally a bad idea:
Let us not enact laws out of grief and passion, or in response to a singular criminal event, however horrific it might be. Cooler heads are needed where our fundamental liberties are at stake.
But she, and I, after all are criminal defense attorneys - what would you expect us to say?  Which is why Patty Wetterling's voice is so important on this issue.  She knows the pain of losing a child, but has come to realize that the anger and desire to do something - anything - in the wake of such a tragedy doesn't always produce good results.

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