May 3, 2008

Sex panic: Still no sign of abatement

The sex panic in the USA shows no signs of abating, despite more and more wrenching stories of excess. Readers will have seen the Seattle Times column I posted yesterday about the man who was dropped off to live under a bridge, an increasingly common phenomenon across the country. (See my previous blog posts here.)

This week, a woman beseechingly wrote to me from Louisiana about her son Eric, now languishing in prison for chatting with a teen girl online. (They never met, and he claims he didn't know her age.) Prison is no picnic, of course, but the real nightmare begins when he is released. According to his mother, he signed up for a 10-year registration, the law changed in January to 25 years, and now Louisiana is looking at retroactive lifetime registration for online offenses like this one. His story is here.

That tale is not uncommon. But more and more, the young men's mothers are going public. Yes, they acknowledge, their boys made mistakes by getting involved with girls who were under the legal age of consent. But they are adamant that their sons are good boys, not predatory pedophiles or rapists.

As an example, here is the story of another mother who went to the media on behalf of her 19-year-old son, who had consensual sex with a girl just shy of her 16th birthday. (Click on the logo below to go to the page that has a video interview with the mother.)

What's becoming increasingly clear from these stories is that the so-called "collateral consequences" are far worse than even the draconian criminal sanctions. Once arrested on a sex charge, no matter how minor or consensual, these young men are ensnared for life in an ever-growing net of so-called "collateral consequences" that make it difficult if not impossible to live a normal life. These include lifetime registration, shaming through online public databases, and – the ultimate consequence in 19 states so far – the possibility of lifetime hospitalization as a sexually violent predator.

Perhaps most chilling is the fact that courts have consistently ruled that people do not have a Constitutional right to be told about these potential consequences before they decide to enter a guilty plea. Indeed, some of the collateral consequences are retroactive; they did not even exist when the person pled guilty in exchange for what looked like a minor penalty.

Jenny Roberts, a law professor at Syracuse University, discusses the injustice of this in a forthcoming law review article, "The Myth of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions: Involuntary Commitment of Sexually Violent Predators" (available for download here).

Nowhere are the results more tragic than when the defendant is factually innocent. This is most likely when a defendant is poor, Black, and/or mentally ill. And also when the guilty plea happened back in the day, before sex offenses became such a lifelong, inescapable yoke.

Friday's Boston Globe features one such case. Guy Randolph is an African American man who struggles with schizophrenia and alcoholism. More than 17 years ago, he was arrested for a sexual assault on a 6-year-old girl. He had been in jail for four months when his attorney encouraged him to cop a plea in exchange for immediate freedom.

But that immediate freedom came at a later price:
"For the past seven years, a photo of Guy Randolph has been posted at Boston police stations, labeling him the most dangerous type of sex offender. Neighbors who knew of his criminal record and the 10 years he spent in prison insulted him when they saw him on the streets. Police ordered him away from schools and playgrounds if he walked too close…. The stigma of the label was almost unbearable. Johns would tell her son how proud she was of him and that the people who called him names were 'ignorant.' But he became withdrawn and despondent, nothing like the outgoing, gregarious boy she had raised."
Yesterday, thanks to the dedicated work of attorney Sejal Patel, his conviction was reversed. Once more, it was the mother who had stood by Randolph and insisted on his innocence. After 17 years of struggle, she was finally celebrating - taking Randolph out for his favorite meal of Chinese food.