October 11, 2009

Sex offender news roundup

Because my subscriber base is diverse, in my daily scans for blog topics I try to balance multiple areas of forensic practice. But these days, news pertaining to sex offender policy is so pervasive that I must consciously work to keep it from overwhelming the blog.

After all, even those of you who work with sex offenders probably want a diversion sometimes. When you initially trained for your profession, I'll bet you weren't thinking, "This will be so fantastic! I'll get to spend lots of quality time with sex offenders, absorbing all of the intimate details of their warped atrocities against women and children!"

No? I didn't think so.

But, sigh, that's the reality these days. Rare monsters in the United States and elsewhere -- such as John Couey in New Jersey and Earl Shriner in Washington State -- drive social policy. Aggrieved family members fire up a local community, politicians jump on an easy bandwagon, and -- voila -- the rest is history. As New York Times reporter Michael Cieply perceptively noted, in reference to the Roman Polanski case, the landscape has changed dramatically in the last three decades:
Manners, mores and law enforcement have become far less forgiving of sex crimes involving minors in the 31 years since Mr. Polanski ... fled rather than face what was to have been a 48-day sentence after he pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor. But if he is extradited from Switzerland, Mr. Polanski could face a more severe punishment than he did in the 1970s, as a vigorous victims' rights movement, a family-values revival and revelations of child abuse by clergy members have all helped change the moral and legal framework regarding sex with the young.
Of course, we must guard against myopia. It is not just in the sex offender arena that we see zero tolerance policies gone wild. Look what is happening in the schools, for example. A 3rd-grade girl got expelled for a year because her grandmother sent a birthday cake to school for her. The problem wasn't the birthday cake, but the knife dear grandma sent to cut it with.

Anyway, on to this quick (I hope) roundup of sex offender-related developments.

Child victim decries conditions for sex offenders

Consequences of extreme social policies are so at odds with the original intents that even many who lobbied for the laws are having second thoughts. The Palm Beach (Florida) Post ran a remarkable story about a child sexual abuse victim whose victimization led to a legislative crusade against sex offenders. Lauren Book, whose child abuse saga began at age 11 at the hands of a caregiver, runs a nonprofit agency aimed at educating the public about child sexual abuse. Now, she is campaigning against the unintended consequences of the very residency restrictions that she helped inspire. Touring the sex offender encampment under the Julia Tuttle freeway in Florida, which I have previously blogged about, she said she has come to realize "that forcing predators to live in inhumane conditions will not protect children; in fact, she fears it may do the opposite":
"You can't really understand what it's like unless you go there. You can't capture it in words or pictures. Being there, hearing it, seeing it, smelling it - it's all part of understanding the situation…. It's a terrible situation under there, it is awful. I don't think them living under a bridge or absconding keeps children safe. I don't want them so desperate that they go out and find a child.''
The perils of a naked pumpkin

Elsewhere, legislators and judges are taking small steps to limit the consequences to youth of overinclusive sex offender registration requirements.

I mean, how would you feel if your kid was branded for life as a registered sex offender just because he had participated in Boulder, Colorado's popular "Naked Pumpkin Run" or "World Naked Bike Ride"?

To circumvent this scenario, Boulder is drafting a public nudity ordinance that would exclude arrests for nudity-related pranks from the registration laws. Commenting over at Grits for Breakfast, Scott Henson hopes this signals a growing public awareness that sex offender registries are too broad. "But a better fix would be for the legislature to remove indecent exposure and other petty crimes from the registry list. IMO we don't need more laws on this issue so much as better ones."

And in Michigan, a judge just ruled that putting a juvenile on the state's sex offender registry would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.

The case involved "T.D.," a 15-year-old boy who touched the breast of a 15-year-old classmate in school. His name would have appeared on the registry for 25 years, until he was 43 years old. That would be unfair, ruled Judge Darlene A. O'Brien, because T.D.'s offense was "more akin to a juvenile prank than predatory, perverted, criminally deviant sexual conduct likely to be repeated." In her well-reasoned ruling, she too addresses the unintended consequences of the laws:

Requiring this rehabilitated juvenile offender to register for a total of 25 years upon reaching adulthood is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophesy -- if TD cannot get through school or get jobs because of community notification and public shunning, he is likely to become marginalized and, in fact, more likely to commit crimes as a result.

Prosecutors are appealing the decision, so an appellate court will get a chance to clarify whether juveniles must submit to public registration even when their offenses are mild and they present little risk of recidivism.

Challenges mounting on religious front

In at least the second pending case, a convicted sex offender in North Carolina is challenging a law that restricts his ability to attend church services. Police arrested James Nichols after he attended a Sunday service at a church that offers day care. As reported in the New York Times, "many of the three dozen states that establish zones where sex offenders cannot live or visit do not provide exemptions for churches." A similar lawsuit is pending in federal court in Georgia. Also in the South, in the city of Louisville, Kentucky, a Pentecostal church has snubbed its nose at the punitive climate against sex offenders by unapologetically ordaining a convicted sex offender as a pastor.

Voice stress analysis upheld

At the same time that these types of fissures are developing in the larger systems, other agencies are imposing additional restrictions on sex offenders. For example, a federal judge has ruled that sex offenders can be required to submit to computerized voice stress analysis as part of their post-release supervision, just as many are already required to undergo testing with polygraphs and penile plethysmography under the "containment approach" to recidivism.

The federal judge in the Northern District of New York ruled that debates about the scientific reliability of the technique do not "bear much on the therapeutic value of the tool" as a lie-detection incentive.

The attorney for Ethan Gjurovich, who was convicted of child pornography charges, said this is the first case he knows of in which a federal court has endorsed voice stress analysis requirement on a parolee. He likened it to the psychological pressure of a "lie-detecting dog" -- "If you don't tell the truth, he's going to bite you."

Paraphilic coercive disorder proposal critiqued

On a parting note, I encourage you to check out an interesting critique of the Paraphilic Coercive Disorder diagnosis being proposed for the DSM-V, over at the Asexual Explorations blog. The blog -- as its title implies -- is devoted to the emerging issue of asexuality. But its author was so astounded upon learning about some of the wacky diagnoses being proposed for the upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that felt compelled to detour from his main topic.

. . . And, speaking of pumpkins, be sure to tune in for a repeat of the ever-popular Halloween post,