What happened to rehabilitation
Doesn’t anyone believe in rehabilitation anymore? Carl Brizzi, the prosecutor, was recently on a local country music station, talking about the new sex offender Web site (www.insor.org/insasoweb). The Web site is supposed to be a tool, but it’s not clear what for, and so the end result is like a video game. Your screen turns into a map of the neighborhood; when you pass the cursor over different icons, the site gives you photographs of odd-looking and dangerous characters along with their vital statistics (height, weight, age), their criminal charges and the exact street addresses where each person lives or works.
Anyone who has played Grand Theft Auto or Mercenaries will find the setup completely familiar. It’s also like Pac-Man, with scary ghosts popping up everywhere. The problem with the Web site is that it abandons a simple premise of our legal system: that a criminal can pay his debt to society. The implication is that these men may be out of prison, but they will never pay their debts. They need to be judged, every day, for the rest of their lives, by their worst moments.
It’s said that sex offenders, especially child molesters, can’t really be treated; they’re dysfunctional personalities. Personally, I don’t like to think the world is a place where people can’t learn from mistakes. I realize, however, that it’s not about what I’d like; maybe that’s just the way it is. I accept that maybe some people are just stopped-up toilets, chemically speaking. I also wonder what the chances are that someone is arrested and convicted the very first time he commits a crime. I suspect everyone on the sex offender Web site may have already gotten lots of second chances.
But surely there must be some way to help these sick people. It seems like pure sadism to give these men the incredibly difficult task of setting themselves straight while we consciously undermine whatever jobs and human contact they’ve regained.
Chasing these people out of our neighborhoods or even out of the city limits doesn’t really help anyone. The New York Times recently (March 15, 2006) examined Iowa, which has passed such a series of stringent sex offender registry/domicile ordinances that it is now illegal for a convicted sex offender to live in 90 percent of Dubuque. There’s a natural ripple effect too — when one community makes an ordinance, neighboring areas follow because they don’t want the rejects to move there — and now towns in Illinois are passing statutes because Iowa sex offenders are trying to find rentable homes across the state line. Since last September, when Iowa passed its newest laws, the number of its registered sex offenders who’ve stopped registering has nearly tripled. According to law enforcement officials, offenders are so harried or frustrated, they quit trying to comply and instead go off the grid or become homeless and live under bridges, etc. This certainly doesn’t improve public safety. Whatever happened to rehabilitation? When did our justice system become all about punishment and then exile?
On one hand, our prosecutor is right: Knowledge is good. An informed public is the basis of democracy. But there is something vindictive, not protective, about this Web site. And shouldn’t I be equally frightened by murderers? Or, as a homeowner, shouldn’t I be worried about home invaders and burglars in the neighborhood? Why not put these on an Internet map too? If my new neighbor has a history of making highly explosive crystal meth in his house, I want to know. And as long as I’m thinking of the community, I don’t want drug dealers living near the schools. Why not make it illegal for drug dealers as well as sex offenders to rent or live near a school? Why not put drug felons on the sex offender map since we’ve already got schools and day cares listed? Why don’t we just ship all our convicted felons to Australia?
Does it matter that one in 37 Americans is either in prison or has been there?
I don’t think the public should consider criminals as strange, Nosferatu-like creatures that came out because Carl Brizzi turned a few rocks over. If there is one positive lesson from the new Web site, it’s that it points out that criminals are not just people like our neighbors; they ARE our neighbors. We need to create some ways to both protect ourselves and bring these individuals back into the community where people act right. We can’t merely point fingers and harass them into hiding. It’s the worst kind of Christianity to say we love our neighbors but, if by chance, we find reasons to fear them, we brand them with scarlet letters, and run them out of town.