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The Law of Unintended Consequences Strikes Again

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: laws are passed, ostensibly, tSex offender registrationo protect the public (children, in particular), and end up having the exact opposite effect. Oh, you’ve heard that one a million times before? Sorry about that.

Anyway, social workers, parole officers, courts, and law enforcement officials in Illinois are experiencing firsthand another example of this all-too-common phenomenon. According to the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, through the Chicago Tribune (also reported here), officials in Illinois are finding that “get tough” legislation designed to protect the public from sex offenders may actually increase recidivism.

Illinois, like many states, has passed laws providing for monitoring of sex offenders after they’re released from prison. Illinois is also keeping up with the more recent trend of passing laws which restrict where convicted sex offenders can live after they’re released, usually barring them from living near schools and other places where children congregate. On its face, this seems like a good idea. After all, who wants sex offenders to live right next to the school their child attends? However, the laws in Illinois on this subject are so restrictive, that it’s often impossible for offenders to find a place to live after they leave.

As a result, they simply have to serve out their parole time in prison. This also sounds pretty good. After all, if convicted sex offenders belong anywhere, it’s in prison, right? Well, that may be the case. But the fact is, most laws don’t provide life sentences for first-time sex offenders, so they have to be released at some point. If they were able to find a place to live, they would have been subject to 24-hour electronic monitoring, unannounced visits from parole officers, and mandatory psychiatric treatment.

This might enable some of them to gradually re-integrate back into society, and greatly reduce their chances of re-offending. For those who have to spend their entire parole term in prison, they just do what they did before: sit in prison. After that, they’re just set loose. Since they’re no longer on probation, they’re subject to far less supervision. Not surprisingly, these offenders are far more likely to re-offend, or simply fall off the grid, making it much more difficult to catch them again.

I’ll say up front that I have no sympathy for sex offenders. Their crimes, especially when the victims are children, are horrifying and disgusting. They deserve to be punished severely. But sometimes, the law has to be a little bit more pragmatic, and can’t always give criminals what they deserve. With that in mind, rehabilitation should at least be the main objective of the criminal justice system. What’s a better outcome? A sex offender spends most of his life in prison (at taxpayer expense), only to be thrown back on the street after his “debt to society” has been paid, or a sex offender who, while in prison, and afterwards, receives intensive psychiatric treatment, and is released (under tight supervision), eventually becoming a productive member of society?

Obviously, not every sex offender can be reformed, and psychological experts are usually pretty good at figuring out if someone is genuinely reformed or not. Those people, obviously, should be locked up as long as possible.

This quagmire in Illinois is, I think, a demonstration of a much larger problem in society: laws passed to make politicians and a public clamoring for blood (figuratively…usually) feel good, without much regard to the consequences.

We’ve seen this in response to bullying, and virtually every other major criminal issue. While I’m not holding my breath, I still hold out some hope that we, as a society, will be able to approach these issues in a more rational, deliberate way. Because, make no mistake, these are very serious issues that must be addressed. But simply “Doing Something” isn’t enough – anyone can spin their wheels in a way that appeases indignant voters. What’s much more difficult, and takes political and legal leadership made of tougher stuff than many politicians, is doing something that actually addresses a problem, instead of simply creating more.

Ken LaMance


  • Mary

    Finally someone is allowing such issues to be noticed. I am a registered sex offenders wife. My husband is one of those who is of no risk to society. He was falsely accused with 16 accounts of inappropriately “touching” a minor. He he was found guilty of one charge which he admitted BUT there was many circumstances that led him up to his HUGE lack in judgment. This was the first time he had been involved with the law (other than some fighting when he was in high school). BUT he will be forever “labeled” as this sick sexual predator because the law doesn’t differentiate between a isolated incident…lousy one-time mistake…and a sick individual who lures children to them and forces sexual assaults on them. Politicians are so quick to create a law…pass a law…just so they can be reelected. Who cares about the families and children of these individuals that are facing life time punishments. American Justice System is said to be the “best” in the world…That is a joke…In the United States you are not worth it…your ultimately guilty before proven guilty…and Our government would much rather throw American people in prison and forget them and continue wasting the American peoples tax money so that the government can look good. Someone like me who is just of the working class/low income trying to live peacefully and support my family has no chance of standing up to this government….So seeing articles like this one really helps me know that I don’t stand alone!!

  • Debra

    I am the mother of a son who was 16 !/2 at the time of incident of a girl who lied to him and all his family members saying she was 17, didn’t go to school,smoked, cussed like a peg leg sailor and looked like she could of been 17. My son met this girl at a church meeting he went to on Wednesday nights. To make a long story short She ended up being his girlfriend, and the girl ended up pregnant and that is when the mother and daughter came to my house and told us that she was pregnant and only 12. I was shocked, I almost past out. I asked the girl why did she lie. The mother was always trying to tell me my son and her daughter was soul mates and I think they will be together forever. She was really strange. I belive the mother and daughter tried to trap my son. The mother told us she did not want my son to go to jail but her sister turned him in. I could not belive it. I have been going through this with my son for just about 8 years he gets parole this year but will be on house arrest for 2. Everyones story is different then the next and there needs to be catagories because there are those that deserve what they get and there are those that do not. My son was a straight A student never been in trouble with the law and was so young and nieve. He crys alot an tells me that is not who he is I have to reasure him that it will be ok and that as long as you know who you are we can get through this. He is 23 now and I pray for him everyday for strength. The judges kept passing the case around because they did not want to send him to jail but because of the law they had no choice. I had one Judge tell me that the one who should go to jail was the girls mother, but all she got was some type of work release. I could not afford a lawyer so he got a public defender that would not talk to me or return my calls and called my son a idiot in the court room. It was a mess and this is our judicial system what a joke.

  • Lola

    I have a friend whose 85 year old father is about to be released from prison for a sex offense. He is in a wheelchair, profoundly deaf, and cannot even feed himself. He is a threat to no one, yet his family is unable to find housing (a nursing home or residential facility) that is willing to accept him because he is a sex offender. He did his time, he is in very poor health and unless some place can take him, he will remain in prison where he cannot even get hearing aids (even if he pays for them himself). It’s a travesty that the rules are the rules are the rules and there is no room for an exception.

  • lori

    im so scared my daughters friend falsely accused my wonderful husband of trying to touch her in her sleep,told kids she had a nightmare then days later told his neice he touched her.i was hoping to see that it wont be a year after year punishment but now im even more scared

  • RustyShackleford

    These posts show that “sex offender” is an overly-broad label. A 16-year-old having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend is very different from somebody who sexually assaults young children. Both are crimes (and while age-of-consent laws aren’t perfect, they exist for a good reason), and should be punished, though obviously to different degrees. But the one-size-fits-all, life-ruining, blanket label of “sex offender” is ludicrous.

    Make no mistake: I have no sympathy for rapists, child molesters, and the like. Any changes to laws dealing with sex offenders after they’re released should not take their feelings or convenience into account. What they SHOULD take into account is their actual effectiveness in protecting communities. And if such restrictive laws actually make offenders more likely to re-offend, they must be re-examined, even if they result in offenders receiving a punishment that some might consider too lenient.

    While there are some good moral arguments for retributive justice, in this context, the stakes are so high that we should focus entirely on results.

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