The awful case of Jaycee Lee Dugard, rescued from a sexual predator after 18 years as his sex slave, is one of those gut-wrenching tales that frightens parents, depresses police officers and energizes lawmakers, who will see an opportunity. Expect politicians at all levels of government, from Congress down to tiny city councils, to seize upon the case to polish their law-and-order credentials.
In the coming months, there’s likely to be a new round of pledges to go after sexual predators and run them out of decent neighborhoods. Look for legislation that imposes fearsome penalties for slight sexual misconduct and adds whole new geographies to the areas where convicted sex offenders may not live, work, eat or breathe.
That impulse, while understandable, ought not to make its way into public policy. Adding offenses and names to the sex registry will make it much more difficult for police to keep an eye on the most dangerous predators.
There are already too many names on sexual offender registries around the country — about 674,000 all told, according to The New York Times. It ought to come as a relief to know that there are not that many vicious perverts of the likes of Philip Garrido, arrested for kidnapping Dugard. (The vast majority of child abductions involve custody disputes; children are usually taken by parents or other relatives.)
But the Garridos infect our memories and invade our nightmares, dredging up our deepest fears about human nature. Every time a case like this comes to dominate the news, public officials make new pledges to protect the public, trying to outdo each other with promises of harsh justice for predators. That has led to sexual registries overburdened with peeping Toms, flashers and foolish adolescents who had sex with a slightly younger teenager.
One of the best known cases of overzealous use of sexual predator laws involved Genarlow Wilson, a young Georgia man who was sentenced to 10 years in prison — and a lifetime on Georgia’s sexual registry — for the crime of consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl. Wilson was 17 at the time.
After the Georgia Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 2007, Wilson was finally released from prison after serving nearly three years. When he was initially prosecuted, he had refused a plea deal that would have meant a lesser sentence. Why? Because the deal would have landed him on a sexual offender registry for the rest of his life.
“I just don’t feel like I’m a sexual predator,” he said. He wasn’t.
Wilson wasn’t the only Georgian ensnared because of inappropriate — but hardly criminal — behavior as a teenager. But when the Georgia Legislature had the opportunity to correct defects in the law — to narrowly focus the sex registry on dangerous, violent offenders who prey on children — it refused to do so. None of the legislators wanted to be caught with a vote that a rival politician might cast as soft on child molesters. That reluctance to back away from overzealous use of sex offender registries has been repeated around the country, leaving police with far too many names to keep up with.
Law enforcement agencies shouldn’t have to waste valuable time and resources trying to monitor the creeps who drop their britches in public. They’re disgusting, but they’re usually not dangerous. And teenagers who have sex on school property may not get Student of the Year awards. But they shouldn’t be on sex offender registries.
No matter how many or how few names are entered on any registry, there will never be a perfect system for foiling the worst predators. Garrido checked in with his parole officer regularly, according to published reports, and wore a tracking device used to monitor his whereabouts. He still managed to ruin a child’s life after he was paroled on a rape conviction.
Trying to eliminate that kind of evil can make for bad law.