|The new American witch hunt
Demonizing sex offenders by passing tough, mindless laws rather than
treating them makes little sense.
By Richard B. Krueger,
Richard B. Krueger is a psychiatrist and an associate clinical
professor of psychiatry at Columbia University's College of Physicians
March 11, 2007
INCREASINGLY, legislation dealing with sex offenders is being passed
that is punitive, untested, expensive and, in many cases,
counterproductive — demonizing people who commit sexual offenses
without offering any empirical information that the new laws will
reduce sexually violent crime.
Last week, for instance, New York became the 19th state to enact
so-called sexually violent predator legislation. This legislation
provides for the indefinite "civil commitment" of sexual offenders who
have served their time in prison and are about to be released.
The legislation was passed despite a lack of evidence that such laws
actually reduce sexual violence and despite recent reports of
warehousing and chaos in some programs and relentlessly rising costs
It is just one example of the kind of punitive laws being passed
across the country. Other measures include increasingly strict
residency restrictions (such as those imposed by Proposition 83 in
California, approved by the voters in November), more stringent rules
for community notification regarding sexual offenders and monitoring
by GPS (also mandated under Proposition 83, with cost projections of
$100 million annually, according to the state's legislative analyst).
In many states, politicians are eager to pass such legislation, which
is enthusiastically supported by the public. Indeed, ask citizens what
they think and you're likely to hear that they support laws to "get
rid of perverts" who, in the eyes of many people, "deserve what they
This is not new. In general, dispassionate discussion of sexuality is
difficult, even more so when it comes to sexual crimes. Ebbs and flows
of public attention and vilification have often occurred in this
In the 1930s and '40s, castration was practiced in California, where
sex offenders and homosexuals received this "treatment." Also, the
first generation of sexual psychopath laws was passed during this
time, mandating indefinite commitment for sexually violent predators.
In the 1980s, society was roiled by a series of high-profile
day-care-center abuse cases (such as the McMartin case and others that
proved later to be unfounded). In the 1990s, there was a media uproar
over supposed "ritualistic" and "satanic" sexual abuse.
These days, the pendulum continues to swing further toward the
punitive end of the spectrum, with ever more draconian sentencing and
post-release conditions. Under the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection
Act, signed into law by President Bush in July, all sex offenders will
be listed on the Internet, making information on offenders, regardless
of whether they belong to a low-, medium- or high-risk category,
publicly accessible; this includes people, for example, whose only
crime is the possession of child pornography.
Obviously, this makes it increasingly difficult for ex-offenders to
obtain residences or jobs — the mainstays of stability — and it
subjects them to ongoing vigilantism and public censure. Although
notification may make sense for some, it does not make sense for all.
In California, the most recent debate has been over whether
Proposition 83, the law passed last year banning registered sex
offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park, can be
retroactively applied to the 90,000 offenders who have already been
released from prison. (Two federal judges ruled last month that it may
What is being created is a class of individuals that is progressively
demonized by society and treated in such a way that a meaningful
reintegration into society is impossible.
Yes, sexual abuse is a serious matter. Yes, individuals who commit
sexual crimes should be punished. Unquestionably, a small percentage
of sex offenders are very dangerous and must be removed from society.
What's more, we know that sexual crimes are devastating to victims and
their families and that we must do all we can to protect ourselves
But demonizing people rather than treating them makes little sense,
and passing laws that are tough but mindless in response to political
pressure won't solve the problem either.
The reality is that, despite the popular perception to the contrary,
recidivism rates for sexual offenders are among the lowest of any
class of criminals. What's more, 90% of sex offenders in prison will
eventually be released back into the community — and 90% of sexual
offenses are committed by people known to their victim, such as family
members or trusted members of the community — so rehabilitation is
critical. It is not possible, affordable, constitutional or reasonable
to lock up all sex offenders all of the time.
Society's efforts to segregate sex offenders are backfiring, resulting
in unintended consequences. Homelessness is increasing among sex
offenders, for instance, making it harder to monitor them and causing
some law enforcement officials to call for a repeal of residency
One of the greatest challenges to workable civil commitment programs
is that offenders are so feared that, when they are ready to be
reintroduced into society, no community will accept them — so instead
they remain institutionalized indefinitely, creating ever-increasing
costs without an end in sight.
Why has this demonization occurred? One reason is that offenders are
hot news, and the more heinous the sexual crime, the more the media
focus on it. Thus, our minds create a stereotype of egregious evil
with respect to all sex offenders. We no longer distinguish between
the most egregious cases and the others, despite the fact that the
most terrible crimes represent only a small proportion of all sexual
But there are less serious crimes, and we should acknowledge that.
Possession of child pornography is categorically different from a
sexual assault. So is exhibitionism. The wife of a man who committed a
hands-off crime involving possession of child pornography put it this
way: "Each of these horrendous crimes drives another nail into our
Another reason for the demonization is that society has failed to fund
research on the treatment and management of people convicted of sexual
crimes — despite the fact that states are willing to spend hundreds of
millions of dollars on unproven programs for treatment and
The current public discourse on sex offenders is, therefore, without a
base of empirical studies. Psychiatry, psychology and our national
research institutes have eschewed involvement with such research.
No one is suggesting that sexual crimes should go unpunished or that
some of the newer approaches — such as medication, intensive community
supervision or even carefully considered civil commitment — are
without value. What is becoming clearer, however, is that the climate
in the United States makes reasonable discussion difficult.
What can be done? Some scholars, in an effort to interpose rationality
between public fear and legislation, have suggested the concept of
"evidence-based legislation." This is analogous to "evidence-based
medicine" and would call on legislative bodies to inform their
proposed laws with the best available scientific evidence — something
that is rarely done now.
What is happening now with individuals who have committed sexual
crimes is the modern-day equivalent of a witch hunt. Our images of the
worst determine what we mete out to all sex offenders. It is time to
reexamine our approaches and develop empirically based, scientifically
sound measures and treatments to bring rationality back to this