On Monday, popular Christian author and blogger Donald Miller posted on Facebook “I oppose the death penalty in murder cases, but support it for child molestors (Sic). Might have to start my own political party for this one.”
His post’s timing coincided perfectly with a conversation and blog that I had already started regarding sex offenders.
Let me start by clearly stating that I am opposed to the death penalty in all cases. I consider murder one of the most egregious crimes and it clearly deserves what I consider the harshest humane punishment, life imprisonment, however I appreciate the sentiment behind Donald Miller’s statement.
If you were to think of the most horrific crimes, sex abuse of a child would be at the top of the list and anecdotally, child sex offenders have to sometimes be segregated from the general population of prisons due to the threat of violence that other prisoners pose to them. Drug dealers, thieves, wife beaters, and murderers also think that child sex abuse is abhorrent.
However, what is commonly held in opinion and what is practiced in reality are two separate things. For instance, every state has a Sex Offender Registry. While one might point to this a punishment unique to sex offenses and child kidnapping, what it actually shows is convicted child molesters are out in public after serving their short jail terms. In the State of Alaska there is a public Court View application that shows criminal charges, dispositions, and sentences. When I compared this to the registered sex offenders in Kenai, it was disturbing how light the sentences for child sexual assault really are. The longest sentence for anyone with a Sex Abuse of a Minor 1 charge (the most serious charge in Alaska-rape of a child) was eight years. Sex Abuse of a Minor 2 yielded anywhere from 270 days to four years , and people convicted of Sex Abuse of a Minor 3 were sentence from 270 days to two years. Attempted sex abuse crimes were sentenced with as little as 30 days. What is even more disturbing about these statistics is that on average, a sex offender who has been sentenced to 8 years for raping a child, will only serve about 3 and a half years.
In addition to light sentences compared to those convicted of homicide, sex offenders, have much higher recidivism rates. According to the Department of Justice within three years of release from prison, 1.2 % of those convicted of homicide were arrested for another homicide. but within 3 years following their release 5.3% of sex offenders were rearrested for another sex crime, and remember that is only the people who had been caught.
In the U.S. we may say that we think that child sex offenses are one of the most serious crimes but in the legal system, do we show that we really respect or care about children?
There are a multitude of problems in the legal system that lead to these light sentences.
First is the fact that most of the time the sex offenders are charged with quite a few crimes and in exchange for a plea, the prosecutors will dismiss all the charges except one, or will allow the defendant to plead down to a lesser charge. For example, in all but two cases of the Kenai Sex Offenders, the defendants plead guilty or no contest and charges were dismissed. Prosecutors often do not want to have a long costly trial and possibly re-traumatize a child victim by putting them on the witness stand. They often do not want the possibility of an acquittal where an offender will not be put on the Sex Offender Registry all.
Secondly, there is a problem with the culture of believing child victims and believing that someone who doesn’t have horns and a tail could be guilty of child rape. Often in movies or on TV someone on the Sex Offender Registry is portrayed as a nice guy who simply urinated in public or an 18 year old having sex with a 16 year old. In my own conversations, often people will say something like, “they are a registered sex offender but I heard it was because he was dating a 16 year old when he was 18” . Here’s the facts: In Alaska, the age of consent is 16. Yes, a 16 year old can legally have sex with a 40 year old. The law states that sex abuse of a minor 3 only occurs when a person 17 or older has sex with a person 13,14, or 15 AND is at least four years younger than them. That would be a 17 year old engaging in sex with a 13 year old or an 18 year old with a 14 year old. No adult is going to go to jail in Alaska for having sex with someone only one or two years younger than them. The law only requires someone to register for indecent exposure 2 if the exposure was in front of someone younger than sixteen and has a previous conviction for the same offense, so again, no one is on the sex offender registry for accidentally peeing in public unless they make it a habit.
Thirdly, we need to continue to educate about consent and healthy sexuality. Some studies show that 10 – 15 % of all sex crimes are perpetrated by people with intellectual deficiencies and almost 50% of incarcerated sex offenders had intellectual deficiencies. One of the possible reasons is that people with developmental disabilities often are functioning at a lower age than their chronological age and therefore don’t realize the inappropriateness of their sexual advances on a child. Though their rate is not much higher than the general public and may be accounted for by them not hiding their actions so being more easy to convict, if we can prevent 10-15 % of sex crimes by concrete and continual education, why wouldn’t we? When I worked in a special ed class room with adolescents, we had to continually, concretely and specifically address sexuality and appropriate sexual boundaries. A lot of what we learn about appropriate sexual behavior is learned through subtle social context that can be more difficult for some people with developmental disabilities to learn. I think it would be great if we could speak bluntly and clearly to all students and not rely on the idea that people will just know what is right and wrong.
We need to back up our abhorrence of child sexual abuse with stiff prison sentences that take into account the high recidivism rate of sex offenders. We need to protect our children by not allowing them to be around people who are registered sex offenders. You can find the Alaskan Sex Offender Registry here, and Alaskan court view here. When in doubt, research what the charges are and what they mean. We need to educate all people on consent and age appropriate sexual activity to prevent at least some abuse in the future.