May 29, 2009

Essential reading on sex offender civil commitment

Failure to Protect: America's Sexual Predator Laws and the Rise of the Preventive State
by Eric S. Janus, William Mitchell College of Law

I just got around to reading this insightful book, and I wanted to recommend it to all of my blog readers. Law professor Eric Janus cogently explains why sexual predator legislation, despite its allure of zero tolerance for sexual violence, makes for very bad public policy.

Predator laws will never work, he argues, because they target only a tiny fraction of sexual violence. An empty "cleansing ritual," they require no fundamental societal change. But they are far from harmless. They siphon vast sums of money away from other programs that could do more good for more people. And they reinforce a distorted notion of sexual assailants as mainly stranger rapists with abnormal psychological makeups.

On a potentially more dangerous level, they provide a template for the resurrection of preventive laws on a massive scale. Janus reminds us of the historical struggle that went into dismantling earlier preventive detention laws that locked up outsiders for what they might (or might not) do. These included slave laws, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and eugenic programs to forcibly sterilize and incapacitate "mental defectives." Sexual predator civil commitment laws are especially dangerous because we can all unite around hating the archetypal sexual bogeyman, and the "science" of risk prediction has a scientific and naturalized veneer that makes preventive detention seem more palatable.

One of Janus' most interesting arguments is that -- perhaps accidentally-- the sexual predator laws have become a powerful force for the politically conservative agenda of dismantling hard-fought feminist rape reforms. The "tabloid model of gender violence" epitomized in these laws favors biological and psychological explanations over sociocultural ones, and supports the patriarchal rape myth that rapists "lack control" over their sexual impulses.

My review continues HERE. (As always, I appreciate "Yes" votes at Amazon, as they help with my ratings and the placement of my book reviews.)

Excerpts from the book are online HERE.

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