Thursday, November 26, 2009

Don't be thankful for this.

Contrary to the chicken littles of the world, crime in America is down, way down. Oddly, as crime rates continued to plummet in the US the number of registered sex offenders is a growth industry. As the Washington Post reports, "Sex-offender registries have grown dramatically this decade...." They report there are now 716,319 people who are official pariahs in the United States, open to public harassment or worse because their names, photos and addresses are posted online. In 2001 the number was 403,000. So, in just eight years the number of registered offenders has almost doubled. It is basically heading for a doubling each decade. Hmm, at that rate the entire population of the US should be registered sex offenders by the end of the century. In Washington, DC., where the politicians hang out, the number of registered offenders has increased by 483 percent since 2001.

One reason for this explosion is that the registries are now casting wider and wider nets. Politicians have criminalized so much human sexuality that chances are good that everyone is sex offender at some point or another in their life. All that prevents them just combining the census with the sex offender list is they haven't been efficient enough to catch everyone. One in five teens could be arrested as child pornographers for taking nude photos of themselves. Young teens who have consenting sex with each other get charged as sex offenders for molesting children. At one high school, if the law were applied as written, virtually every kid in the school would be a registered sex offender. Some girls were arrested for molesting themselves!

When these registries were started the purpose was to have a data base for law enforcement to use during crime investigations. Then some politician got the idea of making them public, which has lead to numerous problems. Then the natural imperialistic nature of bureaucracy took over and the defining of "sex offender" kept expanding. Now it is wide enough to catch just about everyone.

And all this complicates the nature of investigation real sex crimes. Those 700,000 (and climbing) Americans on the list have to register. The police have to monitor them. The vast majority are not a danger to anyone. So the police spend less and less time monitoring any individual on the list—they can only spread themselves so thin. Consider a police officer with the job of keeping track of the 40 truly dangerous sex offenders in his area. He could spend one hour per week on offender. But if the law expands so that he tracking 400 people instead the amount of time he can dedicate per offender drops significantly. And since the really dangerous offenders would be on the list in most cases, the expansion is coming largely from non-dangerous individuals being added to the list. To spend more time monitoring non-dangerous "offenders" he must spend less time monitoring truly dangerous ones. That doesn't make things safer, but more dangerous.

And unlike other crimes, when you do your time, you haven't done your time. A killer can get out of jail and there is no registry to keep track of him. But two teens who had a rumple in the backseat and got caught by Barney Fife can be put on the registry and in many states they stay there for life. No matter how many decades pass, without reoffending, sex offenders stay on that list for perpetual surveillance. In fact, in many states they won't even delete the names when the person dies.

While we should be thankful that crime has fallen dramatically we should not be thankful that the sex offender lists are growing like Topsy.