The chorus of dissent has been getting louder for a while now, but an anthropologist's cogent op-ed in the New York Times may increase mainstream attention to the problem of overly broad sex offender laws. The op-ed by Roger Lancaster is getting a lot of play on professional listservs. In case you missed it here's the conclusion:
Digital scarlet letters, electronic tethering and practices of banishment have relegated a growing number of people to the logic of "social death," a term introduced by the sociologist Orlando Patterson, in the context of slavery, to describe permanent dishonor and exclusion from the wider moral community. The creation of a pariah class of unemployable, uprooted criminal outcasts has drawn attention from human rights activists; even The Economist has decried our sex offender laws as harsh and ineffective.
This should worry us, in part because the techniques used for marking, shaming and controlling sex offenders have come to serve as models for laws and practices in other domains. Several states currently publish online listings of methamphetamine offenders, and other states are considering public registries for assorted crimes. Mimicking Megan’s Law, Florida maintains a Web site that gives the personal details (including photo, name, age, address, offenses and periods of incarceration) of all prisoners released from custody. Some other states post similar public listings of paroled or recently released ex-convicts. It goes without saying that such procedures cut against rehabilitation and reintegration.
Our sex offender laws are expansive, costly and ineffective -- guided by panic, not reason. It is time to change the conversation: to promote child welfare based on sound data rather than statistically anomalous horror stories, and in some cases to revisit outdated laws that do little to protect children. Little will have been gained if we trade a bloated prison system for sprawling forms of electronic surveillance that offload the costs of imprisonment onto offenders, their families and their communities.