The Law of Unintended Consequences Strikes Again
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: laws are passed, ostensibly, to 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.