11 October 2005

Leper Colonies For Sex Offenders?

Greig Veeder wants to set up the modern day equivalent of leper colonies for sex offenders who have been released from prison and he has the ear of the Governor and legislative leaders in Colorado.

There is no doubt that his proposal would be cheaper than simply incarcerating sex offenders for life, and it does have the virtue of asking the question, "where can we put a land use that people don't like?", rather than "where should a land use that people don't like not be permitted?"

But, "Veeder wants to isolate about 75 percent to 80 percent of convicted sex offenders from society; the other programs [of lifetime commitment] have displaced less than 1 percent." This is a huge burden when: "There are 4,573 people convicted of felony sexual assaults living in Colorado, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation." It is also notable that 86% of sex offenders never commit another crime of any kind again once they are released, a rate lower than most non-violent criminals. Many of those who reoffend, moreover, do not commit additional sex offenses. Yes, any convicted felon is a far greater crime risk to the public than the average person who has never been convicted of a crime. Yes, sex offenders are probably more likely to commit another sex offense than a convicted felon who commited some other crime in the past (and hence is likely to reoffend with some crime other than a sex offense), although I've never seen that statistic actually presented. But, are all felony sex offenders really created equal? It is hard to believe that there isn't some way to distinguish between those who pose a high risk, for whom a half way house environment like the one Veeder proposes might be a positive alternative to life time imprisonment, and those who pose a lower risk, for whom the current regime might need only minor improvements.

There are constitutional problems for the plan in the short term, as it amounts to retroactive punishment. But, I don't doubt that it could be done prospectively for new offenders. The question is whether it really makes sense. At a gut level, it doesn't feel right. Our society has regretted similar decisions in the past, and it is not easy to believe that this one would work out better.

No comments: