Saturday, July 23, 2011

Trying to Control the Uncontrollable

We all want to be safe. We all want "the authorities" to protect us. I'm as guilty as anybody else in hoping for a quick fix by "passing a law" to stop something.

There is a good reason why the founders of America set up a divided government and threw in lots of blocks to slow down a "rush to judgment". We are generally too simplistic in our thinking and don't understand the "unintended consequences" of our actions.

Here's an excellent example from Lenore Skenazy on her Free Range Kids blog. Here are the key bits:

Ever look at a map of the local sex offenders, the ones with little dots showing where the guys live who prey upon helpless little children? Well, as of this week, there are two dots that won’t come off until the guys die of old age — which could be quite a while.

Right now, they’re both 16.

The boys committed their crime at age 14. And just what was it?

Horseplay. Stupid, disgusting horseplay. According to, the kids pulled down their pants and sat on two 12-year-olds’ faces for the simple reason that they “thought it was funny” and were trying to get their “friends to laugh.”

That’s how one of the teens explained himself to a Somerset County, N.J., judge back in 2008. (His friend headed off a trial by pleading guilty to the same act.)

The judge then considered what he had in front of him, and rather than think, “These punks could use some community service time and maybe a suspension from school — plus an in-person apology to the kids they sat on,” he thought, “These two are sex offenders.”

After all, what they had done was, technically, “criminal sexual contact” with intent to humiliate or degrade. And so sex offenders he ruled they were. That meant they were subject to Megan’s Law. In New Jersey, such offenders, even as young as 13, have to register for life.

This past week, the young men appealed their sentence and lost.

What does it mean to be on the sex offender list? First of all, the public knows where you live. Websites and newspapers can publish your photo. So can TV news. Parents can warn their kids never to go near you.

In many states, registered sex offenders have to live a certain distance from where kids congregate, be that a school, day care center, park or bus stop. So these young men may have to move to the sticks.

When they get a job (Good luck! Not many places are dying to hire registered sex offenders), they have to notify the authorities of where they’re working.

They also have to re-register four times a year, and if they miss an appointment, they can go to jail. In some communities, they have to turn their lights off on Halloween. In others, they have to answer the door saying, “I’m a registered sex offender.” All because of this stupid prank they pulled at age 14.


These guys are more like Dennis the Menace, which is why we have to change the criteria that land folks on the registry. These young men were never “predators.” And as the years go by, the idea that they pose a danger to children will become even more ridiculous. When you’re 20, 30, 40 — 80! — you don’t do the things you did as a 14-year-old trying to impress your buddies. Why is Megan’s Law blind to human nature?

If it were making kids safer, maybe we could overlook how obtuse it is. But a 2008 study found that, in New Jersey at least — where little Megan Kanka, for whom the law is named, was murdered — the law showed no effect in reducing the number of sexual re-offenses or reducing the number of victims.

It’s time to change the law and the registry. Otherwise, too many of the dots on a sex offender map will be victims, not criminals.
I have no solution (except maybe sunset conditions set on every law to get bad laws off the books without requiring politicians to stick their necks out).

Oh, I guess I have another solution: require politicians to consult with academic experts before they pass laws. Treat the "academic review" as just another layer of built-in hindrances to stop a rush to judgment or as another division of power to force "sober second judgment" before passing laws.

Ultimately there is no fix. There are things we can do for now until they don't work or we discover they have counter-productive side-effects. Sadly, life is an experiment and not a formula. We don't get to calculate the best strategy. We are forced to fiddle our way forward as best we can. This means dead-ends and retreats in the face of circumstances we didn't foresee.

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