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In the Penal Colony


I see that they picked up this wonderful story all the way down in Australia. “Sexual predators tracked by satellite,” was how the News.com.au service put it (May 3), picking up something that originated with Reuters in Florida’s capital city of Tallahassee the day before.

News.com.au means “Breaking news 24/7″ and all of that. News Corp territory, in other words. One of Rupert Murdoch’s properties. My hunch is that The Advertiser (South Australia), the Courier Mail (Queensland), the Daily Telegraph (New South Wales), the Herald Sun (Victoria), and The Mercury (Tasmania) also picked up the story. (Though to be perfectly honest, I haven’t checked.) As did the New Zealand Herald—which even devoted a special “Infocus” webpage to the topic.

As this particular Reuters story opened, in the version of it with which Murdoch’s Australian editors appear so enamored:

Convicted sexual predators in Florida could be imprisoned or tracked by satellite for the rest of their lives under a new law signed by Governor Jeb Bush.

The law, prompted by the recent murders of two young girls, requires sentences of 25 years to life in prison for sexual predators convicted of molesting children less than 12 years of age.

Convicts serving less than life would wear a tracking device linked to global positioning systems until their death.

Welcome to the United States of America. Where the violent murders of two young girls in the State of Florida, one aged 9, the other 13, the accused in each case being a registered sex offender—of which there are somewhere on the order of 30-35,000 in Florida alone—leads the Florida legislature to adopt a new law (named after one of the two murder victims, no less) which, according to a media release put out by Florida’s Republican Governor, will (among other things):

- Increase the penalty for lewd and lascivious molestation of a child to life in prison or a split sentence of a mandatory minimum 25-year prison term, followed by lifetime supervision with electronic monitoring.
- Increase sexual predator/offender registration and reporting requirements.
- Designate failing to re-register as a sexual offender/predator or harboring or assisting a sexual predator/offender a third degree felony.
- Require those already convicted of sex crimes to have electronic monitoring for the remainder of their probation.

So: A mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years and/or lifetime supervision with electronic monitoring (under GPSes, no less—and this is if you live that long); more stringent registration and reporting requirements; and harboring a sex offender will now count as a third degree felony (i.e., if convicted, said offender will face a prison sentence between one and five years). But how do you harbor a sex offender? By letting your brother-in-law stay at your place? And what about this evolutionary leap in the “safety and welfare of our children,” as the Commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said after Florida’s Governor signed the legislation? Might anybody care to hazard a guess as to what is really going on in Florida?

The mandatory 25 years is “roughly three times the average sentence currently imposed” in Florida, the New York Times reports in one of the few serious efforts to understand the genesis of the new law.

The Times continued:

The [Florida] Legislature, which originally required sex offenders to remain on the registry for 10 years, increased it to 30 years under the new law. In New York, more than 3,000 offenders are scheduled to come off the registry next year, though Gov. George E. Pataki recently proposed keeping every offender on it for life.

Florida also has a costly law, enacted after a 9-year-old boy was raped and killed in Homestead in 1995, authorizing the indefinite confinement of offenders after their sentences expire if they have been defined as ”sexually violent predators.”

Though some 20 states have similar laws, Florida keeps among the most offenders, about 475, in confinement. The offenders are supposed to be treated until they are deemed fit to rejoin society, but the law has been met with criticism because few of those detained accept treatment and few are ever released.

Now. What is a sexually violent predator? Is this a bona fide diagnostic category—in the same sense that, say, a permanent vegetative state is? Or is it an ideological category? (Like the overwhelming majority of the categories in and through which what passes for psycho-social analyses are carried out. Particularly when legislatures, law-enforcement agencies, the courts and prosecutors, the prison system, the mass media, and mothers against this or that are mobilized to demand the diapers be changed.)

Is a sexually violent predator something that somebody somewhere really can be? As opposed to something that somebody somewhere might do?

In perhaps the most serious effort on the part of a mainstream publication to place Florida’s new Jessica Lunsford Act into its context, the Baltimore Sun quoted the founder of the Sexual Disorder Clinic at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Dr. Fred Berlin, who explained:

It is terribly important to keep in mind that kidnapping, rape and murder represents less than a fraction of one percent of the problem of child sexual abuse. We are really talking about the exception. In this context, we ought to be talking about the rule.

Presuming, that is, that you are interested in identifying the actual nature and scope of the problem, and addressing it for what it is—then you should be talking about the rule, rather than the exception. On the other hand, if you are interested in constructing a category of felons on a scientific par with a diagnosis of moral degeneracy, casting the law-enforcement net far and wide, sweeping up everybody who for whatever reason fails to escape it, and branding and punishing them for life? Then I think you line up a speaking engagement with the head of mothers if it’s not this, then surely that, who told the Baltimore Sun: “A minimum 25-year sentence, not only in Florida but across the nation, would send a message of zero tolerance.” And: “[I]t should be punishment first, then treatment.”

Underscoring the self-inflicted madness of it all, the Florida Governor’s media release went on to re-assure us that,

Since taking office, Governor Bush has supported and passed several laws to reduce crime and to provide victims with more rights. As a result of this leadership, Florida is experiencing the lowest crime rate in more than 30 years.

In the United States of America today, isn’t this the way of all flesh? Florida’s Governor boasts about his state’s ever-newer and more draconian laws designed to “reduce crime,” even though his state is “experiencing the lowest crime rate in more than 30 years”! Indeed. It is no different around the rest of the United States. Between July 1, 2003, and June 30, 2004, the number of U.S. residents incarcerated under local, State, and Federal jurisidictions had increased by 48,452, reaching a total of 2,131,180, or 726 U.S. residents locked up for every 100,000—the highest rate of incarceration on the planet. (Compared to 548 per 100,000 in Russia, 402 in South Africa, 209 in Israel, 169 in Mexico, 141 in Great Britain, 119 in China, 116 in Canada, 114 in Australia, 96 in Germany, 95 in France, 75 in Sweden, 58 in Japan, and 29 in India. (Though I should add that this data may be slightly out of date.)) “People from some social groups in the U.S. are far more likely to end up in prison,” a beautiful little report by the BBC noted about this American madness. “The figures showed that 12.6% of black males in their late 20s are in prison, compared to 3.6% of Hispanics and about 1.7% of whites.”

The enormity of the commitment on the part of the American economic, political, and civil establishment at all its levels (Federal, State, and local—and mothers for the penal colony) to the deprivation of the freedoms of some of its residents, as well as to instituting a sort of half-panopticonized, half-Big Brother way of life, becomes evident. Nor is there any denying it. When one factors in the number of people on probation and parole, which stood at 4,848,575 by the end of 2003—in other words, when one gets one’s hands around the totality of the “adult correctional population,” as the Bureau of Justice Statistics likes to describe this huge caste of Americans—the total number of U.S. residents screwed daily by the American penal colony must have reached the seven-million mark by now.

Let there be no mistake about it: This is a fascistic state and civil dynamic we’ve got running here.

Nor is there anything friendly about it.

Postscript (May 28): According to Jerome G. Miller (“American Gulag,” 2000):

While most people assume jail overcrowding results from rising crime rates, increased violence, or general population growth, that is seldom the case. Here, in order of importance, are the major contributors to jail overcrowding:

1. The number of police officers
2. The number of judges
3. The number of courtrooms
4. The size of the district attorney’s staff
5. Policies of the state’s attorney’s office concerning which crimes deserve the most attention
6. The size of the staff of the entire court system
7. The number of beds available in the local jail
8. The willingness of victims to report crimes
9. Police department policies concerning arrest
10. The arrest rate within the police department
11. The actual amount of crime committed

How lovely, if you think about it. An ever-more deeply entrenched, self-sustaining law enforcement, prosecutorial, judicial, sentencing, and “correctional” bureaucracy acting so as to construct a vast array of crime and criminals, as a way of fulfilling its societal purpose and maintaining its power (etc.). And of all of the factors which go into this social complex as a whole, the one that deserves the smallest weight, in Miller’s estimate, is the actual amount of crime committed!

Postscript (May 30): If the “Global War on Terror” ever loses its propagandistic appeal, or if the Quran-idolatrists among the ACLU and Amnesty International succeed in their efforts at weakening our Homeland’s defenses, perhaps the regime in Washington could launch a Global War on Sexual Predators instead? (Having already launched one domestically, don’t forget. And having enlisted in the cause the Church of the Traumatized Americans—which, in terms of sheer numbers, is the single largest denomination in the States today. And still growing.)

And if, perchance, the regime in Washington ever does take up a new crusade against Sexual Predators globally, what percentage of the American Left do you suppose will enlist in it? Using the performance of the American Left during the 1990s’ Wars of Humanitarian Intervention as the basis for your estimate, do you suppose it will be closer to 10 percent? Closer to 50 percent? Or closer to 90 percent?

And, before I let you go, one last question: How long do you suppose it will take before Harvard’s Carr Center on Human Rights Policy offers new post-graduate studies in the Global War on Sexual Predators among in its Program Areas?

National Predator Report (“Be Aware. Be Alert. Be Safe.”)
Prepared remarks of the Atorney General Alberto R. Gonzales at the National Press Club, U.S. Department of Justice, May 20, 2005
Justice Department Plans Registry of Sex Offenders,” Dan Eggen, Washington Post, May 21, 2005

Government Documents on Torture (Homepage), American Civil Liberties Union
United States of America,” Amnesty International Report 2005 (Homepage)

Postscript (June 18): Joeblog56 just called to my attention the following report on the Group of 8′s earth-shattering plans to establish an “international paedophile database,” which, he rightly adds, the G-8 is bound to undertake with a far highler level of earnestness than, to date, it has debt relief, global poverty reduction, the promotion of human rights, democracy, international peace and security, and the like:

G8 to launch international paedophile database,” David Batty, The Guardian, June 18, 2005

Crime as a Signal, Crime as a Memory,” Martin Innes, Journal for Crime, Conflict and the Media Vol. 1 (2), 2004 (Special thanks to Joeblog56 for forwarding this article to all of us.)

Governor Signs Jessica Lunsford Act,” Office of the Governor of Florida, May 2, 2005

Florida Poised to Use GPS to Monitor Sex Offenders,” Michael Peltier, Reuters, April 20, 2005
Unforgiven: Should sex offenders be watched carefully for the rest of their lives?” Michael Hill, Baltimore Sun, May 1, 2005
After 2 Cases in Florida, Crackdown on Molesters,” Abby Goodnough, New York Times, May 1, 2005
Florida sex predators to be tracked by satellite,” Michael Peltier, Reuters, May 2, 2005
Florida Paedophiles Face Lifelong Satellite Tracking,” David Royse, The Independent, May 3, 2005
“Fla. governor signs tougher sex offender bill,” Marc Caputo, Miami Herald, May 3, 2005
Congress targets sexual predators,” Times-Picayune, May 3, 2005
Florida’s tough stand against child molesters,” Richard Luscombe, Christian Science Monitor, May 4, 2005

Probation and Parole in the United States,” Lauren E. Glaze and Seri Palla, Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, July, 2004. (And the accompanying media release.)

Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2004,” Paige M. Harrison and Allen J. Beck, Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, April, 2005. (And the accompanying media release.)

International Centre for Prison Studies (Homepage)
Justice Policy Institute (Homepage)
Sentencing Project (Homepage)
New Incarceration Figures: Rising Population Despite Falling Crime Rates,” Sentencing Project, December, 2004

U.S. prison population soars in 2003, ’04,” Associated Press, April 24, 2005
The US prison population has risen further,” BBC News World Edition, April 25, 2005
U.S. jails, prisons overflowing,” Editorial, Denver Post, May 3, 2005

FYA (“For your archives”): Since I am not certain how long the Baltimore Sun‘s important analysis of the legal and psycho-social perversions at work behind the rush-to-adopt the new Jessica Lunsford Act in Florida will remain accessible via the Sun‘s own website, I’m going to deposit a copy of it here, to ward off the evil $$$$$$ spirits that sooner or later will remove it from our grasp.

The Baltimore Sun
May 1, 2005 Sunday
FINAL EDITION
SECTION: PERSPECTIVE; Pg. 1C
HEADLINE: Unforgiven;
Should sex offenders be watched carefully for the rest of their lives?
BYLINE: Michael Hill, SUN STAFF

With the arrests of two men with records of sex offenses in the recent killing of two young girls in Florida, legislators in that state are taking action.

A bill that would give anyone convicted of molesting a child younger than 12 a minimum 25-year sentence and a lifetime of wearing a global positioning system tracking device is moving quickly toward law.

To some, such sweeping legislative action should not be taken in the heated aftermath of the killings.

“I don’t know if you want to be having these conversations in the context of the horrible crimes that occurred in Florida,” says Dr. Fred Berlin, associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who founded the Sexual Disorder Clinic there.

“It is terribly important to keep in mind that kidnapping, rape and murder represents less than a fraction of one percent of the problem of child sexual abuse,” he says. “We are really talking about the exception. In this context, we ought to be talking about the rule.”

But to others, this is a conversation that doesn’t happen unless it is driven by events like those in Florida – the rape and killing of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in February and last month’s killing of Sara Lunde, 13.

“It is without question a reactive approach,” says Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law, who backs the Florida legislation. “Unfortunately, that is the way lawmakers respond. When you try to pass proactive measures, political game-playing gets in the way.”

Indeed, the law that gave its name to Ahearn’s group was a reactive measure. In 1994, Megan Kanka, 7, was raped and killed by a convicted pedophile.

Her death led to Megan’s Laws, first in New Jersey where she lived, then in other states and, in 1996, at the federal level. Those laws require sex offenders to register with state authorities. In most states, including Maryland and Florida, names, addresses and photographs of those registered are available online.

Legislators in Florida have called their new proposal the Jessica Lunsford Act. Her accused killer, John E. Couey, is a registered sex offender who did not notify authorities when he moved into Jessica’s neighborhood.

Couey’s record includes an indecent exposure charge and a 1991 arrest for fondling a child under age 16, though reports say it is unclear how that case was resolved.

David Onstott, charged in the killing of Sara Lunde, was also a registered sex offender, convicted of raping an adult. Police said he had once dated Sara’s mother and was looking for her when he got into an argument with Sara and she was killed.

In Miami Beach, Mayor David Dermer responded by proposing buffer zones between schools, parks, school-bus stops or “places where children regularly congregate” and areas where registered sex offenders are allowed to live. That would mean that virtually the entire city would be off-limits to those on the state list.

In other parts of the state, pickets have shown up at the houses of those on the registry. Fliers were handed out in other neighborhoods to warn of the presence of a sex offender.

What bothers Berlin is that terms like “sex offender” and “sexual predator” get thrown around as if all who have such convictions on their records are the same.

“People act as if one glove fits all,” he says. “But the majority of sex offenders are not dangerous strangers. The majority are not physically violent.”

Yet these are the incidents that lead to lawmakers taking action – and communities taking up picket signs.

`Most publicity’

“Overall, the vast majority of child sexual abuse is not perpetrated by strangers but by close family members and caretakers,” says Jana Singer, who teaches family and juvenile law at the University of Maryland School of Law. “But it does seem to be the case that those perpetrated by strangers get the most publicity and generate the largest responses, particularly legislative.

“If the idea is to try to enact legislation that will do the most good for the most children, this may not be the best place to concentrate the effort,” she says. “But when terrible things happen, the temptation for legislators to do something is great.”

Berlin argues that laws calling for draconian punishments can backfire, making family members reluctant to report abuse by a relative.

Ahearn says such fears are overblown, in large part because convictions for sex abuse represent such a small part of the problem.

“The cases in court are just the tip of a huge iceberg,” she says. “You have to work hard to be convicted for a sex offense. Most of the cases are being pleaded out. The criminal justice system is not set up to handle them.”

Ahearn says statistics indicate that 90 percent of sexual abuse goes unreported, and that a perpetrator who does end up in court for a single incident has, on average, abused large numbers of children before that arrest.

“The positive effect of stricter sentences is that it is sending the message of zero tolerance for sex offenders,” she says.

Her mission is comparable to that undertaken by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which sought a change of laws against – and attitudes toward – that offense.

“Most sex offenders are spending little or no time in jail,” Ahearn says. “They are just getting a slap on the wrist. A minimum 25-year sentence, not only in Florida but across the nation, would send a message of zero tolerance.”

Mental makeup

The alcoholism that is behind so many drunken-driving arrests is perhaps a good comparison for the mental makeup that leads to child sexual abuse. Recovering alcoholics say they are never cured, that they just continue resisting taking a drink. Similarly, treatment for those with sexual desires for children focuses not on changing those desires but on getting people not to act on them.

Berlin acknowledges that, as with alcoholics, there are some who cannot resist and so should be locked up for long periods and closely monitored when in society. But he says that, with treatment, many others successfully manage to stay within the lines.

For Ahearn, the prospect of a lengthy sentence is a prime motivator for those with these desires not to act on them. And, she argues, long sentences are needed because so many offenders who are caught abuse again.

Berlin disagrees. “As a group, sex offenders have a lower, rather than a higher, rate of recidivism than other groups of criminals,” he says. “Yet the majority of current legislation is based precisely on the opposite assumption.”

Recidivism rates for sex offenders are a contentious issue. Berlin points to a decade-old study that shows that more than 90 percent of those who went through his center’s treatment program had not offended again after five years. An update is about to be released, he says.

Ahearn dismisses that, saying Berlin’s clients are a population least likely to offend again since they voluntarily sought treatment. She can note statistics that show a large percentage will offend again. And, depending on how you define certain terms, some studies show that. But many others do not.

`Myths’ Web site

The U.S. Justice Department’s Center for Offender Management has a “Myths and Facts” Web site about sex offenders.

“Myth: `Most sex offenders reoffend,’” it reads. “Fact: Reconviction data suggests that this is not the case. Further, reoffense rates vary among different types of sex offenders and are related to specific characteristics of the offender and the offense.”

This would seem to support Berlin’s contention that one size does not fit all, that a 25-year sentence and lifetime monitoring might be needed for some but is inappropriate, even counterproductive, for many.

Barbara Babb, who directs the Center for Families, Children and the Courts at the University of Baltimore’s law school, agrees.

“I think there is a lot that can and should be done that isn’t being done to determine the most effective types of treatment to prohibit recidivism,” Babb says.

“One of our goals as a society should be to focus on rehabilitation efforts, putting funding into studies to determine what works,” she says. “It is very easy to go to the other end and just say let them all wear a GPS bracelet for life.”

While favoring an emphasis on treatment for juvenile offenders, Ahearn is skeptical of any approach that attempts to differentiate among adult sex offenders, sending some for treatment and others to jail.

“I feel very strongly that risk assessment is inappropriate,” she says. “No government bureaucrat is able to decide who is going to be a risk and who is not.”

Treatment concern

Berlin worries that the complete demonization of sex offenders means that almost no one who has these kinds of desires will seek treatment before crossing the line into criminal behavior.

“There are 18-year-olds out there who are aware that they feel an attraction for 8-year-olds,” he says. “But the last thing in the world they are going to do is raise their hands and ask for help, because society is making it impossible for them to do so.”

Ahearn says few would ask for help under any circumstances.

“I am reluctant to believe that any 18-year-old would seek out treatment for this behavior since they would already be feeling so degenerate and unacceptable to society,” she says.

Ahearn agrees that treatment should be part of an offender’s lifetime monitoring. “But it should be punishment first, then treatment,” she says.

In Florida, not surprisingly, it is the punishment part that’s getting legislative attention.

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