Tennessee is one of a number of states that wants to pass "Jessica's Law" -- a knee-jerk reaction law meant to punish child sex offenders, in response to Jessica Lundsford's rape and murder in Florida. Jessica's Law was passed in Florida, and has been introduced as a Federal Act, and a large number of states are rushing to copy Florida. Now, I have serious reservations about this law, besides the high cost to taxpayers. There are a number of folks in TN politics that want to see the passage of Jessica's Law, including Governor Bredesen.
Bredesen's legislative package includes one major anti-crime initiative, a so-called "Jessica's law" that mandates a minimum 25-year sentence for people convicted of child sexual abuse. The governor's budget allocates $7.7 million toward covering the cost of increased incarceration upon passage of that bill.
The problem with this, is that Jessica's Law encompasses monitoring of the sexual predator, by GPS ankle bracelet, after the imposed incarceration, so the reality of the costs Bredesen gives us is skewed, he only gives us the cost of increased incarceration. It appears that the cost of monitoring, for life, of the accused is not included. And I haven't even touched on the fact that TN's Jessica's Law is purely punitive and has no rehabilitative aspects.
Additionally, I feel that Jessica's Law is overly broad. For instance, Romeo & Juliet relationships are included -- meaning a young man in a Romeo & Juliet relationship is deemed a child sex predator, with mandatory incarceration and continued monitoring thereafter. Now, I'm not a big proponent of Romeo & Juliet relationships, but realistically, they do happen.
Jessica's Law also seems to negate the fact that the majority of child sexual crimes are committed by a family member or friend, and that there is actually a lower recidivism rate than we are being led to believe. None of what I've discussed so far covers what happens after the convicted person is released, other than being tracked by GPS.
All of this leads me to today's NYTimes, and Civil Commitment. A program that keeps rapists and child molesters incarcerated long after they have completed their prison sentence. Civil committment is supposed to offer rehabilitation, but rarely do.
The decision by New York to confine sex offenders beyond their prison terms places the state at the forefront of a growing national movement that is popular with politicians and voters. But such programs have almost never met a stated purpose of treating the worst criminals until they no longer pose a threat.
About 2,700 pedophiles, rapists and other sexual offenders are already being held indefinitely, mostly in special treatment centers, under so-called civil commitment programs in 19 states, which on average cost taxpayers four times more than keeping the offenders in prison.
Few ever make such progress: Nationwide, of the 250 offenders released unconditionally since the first law was passed in 1990, about half of them were let go on legal or technical grounds unrelated to treatment.
What the NYTimes article show is that rehabilitation lacks oversight and is largely ineffective, because it does not address the individual that committed the crime. Rehabilitation programs within civil commitment programs vary greatly. Now, let me preface this by saying TN does not participate in a Civil Commitment program. What I want to point out is that this program is also largely punitive rather than rehabilitative. The paradox is, civil commitment has been sold to states as being rehabilitative.
“There has to be a process in place that prevents someone from rejoining society if they’re still dangerous,” said Jeffrey Klein, a Democratic member of the New York State Senate who has pushed for civil confinement there.
I completely understand the primal desire to keep our children safe. But, I have to question if these punitive measures are going to actually help keep our children safe. In other words, children and adults are "kept safe" from those that have already committed their special crimes, but these punitive measures do not keep you or your child safe from those that are released from incarceration, or those that have not been established as being a threat. Punitive measures only help after the fact, if they help at all.
Enter rehabilitation and prevention.
Largely missing from any discussion of instituting sexual offender laws is rehabilitation, especially that which works in conjunction with the above punitive measures. Understanding and developing treatment has been sparse, in part because sexual offenses were not often reported in the past, thus could not be studied or tracked.
When it comes to treatment, there has been little rigorous study of what works and what doesn't, according to the non- profit Center for Sex Offender Management in Silver Spring, Md., and the few studies that do exist have shown mixed results.
But newer practices that treat sexual offenses like a chemical addiction may show the most promise, according to the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers in Beaverton, Ore.
Over time, the ideas of how to treat and rehabilitate sexual offenders is growing. Note that not all child sexual offenders can be lumped into one category. For instance, all pedophiles are child molesters, but not all child molesters are pedophiles. there are specific distinctions between the two, which I think many in the public do not recognize. Politicians, on the other hand, don't mention differences in sexual offenders, because it's easier to get public support for punitive laws, such as Jessica's Law and Civil Commitment programs, in my opinion.
The other link is prevention. Prevention that works on many levels, from the individual to the family, to the community.
Who does prevention target?
Prevention occurs at several levels, each targeting different populations and issues.
Primary prevention initiatives typically address the public in general, or a particular segment of the population (e.g., parents, teens). Examples related to sexual assault might include sex education programs in high school health classes, college programs to reduce dating violence and assault, and programs designed to teach parents how to better protect their children.
Secondary prevention focuses on individuals and groups who may be at risk to engage in the target behavior. For example, a school-based skills training classes could be offered to adolescent males who have behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner with peers. Or children from sexually abusive homes (a risk factor) may be helped to develop healthy attitudes toward sexuality and aggression.
Tertiary prevention focuses on those who have already committed the target behavior (e.g., sexual offenders) to reduce the likelihood of the behavior happening again. Thus, sex offenders receive quality treatment and supervision that dramatically reduces the likelihood of future sexual offenses. Similarly, victims of sexual assault can be helped to recover from trauma while avoiding future victimization.
Note that ATSA advocates prevention for those that are potential targets as well as those that are potential offenders.
Ideally, I would like to see Tennessee's legislature take a step back and incorporate prevention and rehabilitation into laws that deal with sexual offenses. The inhabitants of the state would find these measures, Prevention-Rehabilitation-and Punitive, working in conjunction with each other to be far more beneficial than strictly punitive measures.
Why aren't rehabilitation and prevention being discussed by our governor and legislators, as vociferously as punitive measures?