December 6, 2007

Sex panic going hi-tech

When someone emailed me yesterday about Offendar, I thought it was a joke. Or maybe a typo. But, no. Some greedy techno-entrepreneurs have found another way (they hope) to capitalize on the current sex panic in the United States.

What is Offendar? It's a portable "personal threat detection system" that sounds an alarm whenever someone nearby is wearing an electronic ankle bracelet.

It's not in use yet. But a rabidly tough-on-crime lawmaker in Ohio invited the maker to demonstrate it yesterday before state lawmakers. Offendar LLC is hoping that the Ohio state senator Tim Grendell will help pass legislation requiring that the technology for the device be inserted into existing ankle bracelets.

I'm guessing that would be necessary because so many people other than sex offenders are required to wear ankle bracelets these days. It's a common method for courts to keep track of people out on bail for misdemeanor offenses such as drunk driving. Here in Contra Costa County, California, just about every teenager released from juvenile hall pending further court action has a bracelet secured to his or her ankle.

David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, said the idea plays on public fears while penalizing people who have already served time in prison for their crimes. "What are we trying to do, make it impossible for people to get on their feet again and be productive citizens?" Singleton said.

A spokeswoman for the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center concurred, pointing out that 9 in 10 sex crimes involve family members or other intimates of the victim. "This just plays on the great … stranger danger myth that’s not true," said Lindsay Fello-Sharpe.

If the hand-held alarm takes off, Offendar LLC hopes to expand the concept to "permanent and mobile perimeter alerts" around schools, zoos, shopping malls, carnivals, fairs, and sports events.

Offendar principal Jerry Pignolet said the device is meant to enable people to leave the presence of a sex offender. "It gives you an opportunity to gather your family, get in the car and lock the doors."

The current wave of vigilante attacks against convicted sex offenders makes me doubt that everyone would just duck and run.

Picture this: Some guy who's just had a fight with his girlfriend fuels up on alcohol and decides to take out his rage and hostility on the nearest bogeyman sex offender. When police find him standing over the dead body with a bloody bat, they tell him the bad news. The dead kid had a conviction for statutory rape because when he was 18 he had dated a girl who was 16. Oops!

Ohio newspapers, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Columbus Dispatch, are covering the story. In the blogosphere, Sentencing Law & Policy has more.