September 14, 2007

Exiles in their own land: Sex offenders and the history of banishment in Western culture

Adam and Eve were banished from Eden. Much later, in 12th-century England, criminals could use banishment to escape death providing they had fled to a sacred place for sanctuary. Still later, convicts were banished to far-away prison colonies, among them the United States and, later, Australia. Banishment served the same function as execution, but “without the blood.” This form of banishment ended with the ebbing of new frontiers.

Now, in sex offender residency laws, we are seeing a new form of banishment – internal exile – that may fundamentally change the U.S. criminal justice system and the broader culture.

So argues Corey Rayburn Yung, a law professor at the John Marshall Law School, in a cogent analysis of the history and legal status of banishment.

At this point, residency restrictions have not seen their full effects. As I write, parole agents armed with GPS devices are fanning the state of California, knocking on ex-offenders’ doors and telling them to move. (See today’s Contra Costa Times for the latest news coverage as well as an interesting map illustrating the scope of the banishment in the San Francisco Bay Area.)

As large, urbanized states begin to enforce the restrictions, exile communities will develop. It is frightening to think of the unintended consequences of creating communities made up almost entirely of male sex offenders, where sexual deviancy will become the norm. Or of forcing those who reject these offender ghettos to disappear underground, where they will go unmonitored and unemployed, creating another recipe for recidivism.

Yung’s article, from the current issue of the Washington University Law Review, is available online.

Masaccio's Die Vertreibung Adams und Evas aus dem Paradies, public domain at Wikimedia