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Humiliating Offenders Will Not Stop Child Sexual Assault

May 3, 2005

A state representative from Cleveland has proposed bright pink license plates with red letters for registered sex offenders (“Lawmaker wants pink plates,” Columbus Dispatch, 5/3/05). Imposing scarlet letters on sexual transgressors dates back to Puritan times. But why pink?

“We were trying to come up with a color that would attract attention and children could regularly identify it,” State Rep. Michael DeBose told the Columbus Dispatch. But pink is not the same as typical warning colors like red or orange. In many Western societies authorities have deliberately chosen to strip men of their dignity by branding them with the “feminine” color pink.

U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib forced inmates to wear pink panties. In Phoenix, the sheriff makes male inmates in the county jail wear pink underwear, and paraded them in public last month in their pink shorts and flip-flops. And half a century ago, the Nazis made gay men wear pink triangles.

DeBose thinks that forcing sex offenders to use license plates in a “distinctive pink color” would protect Ohio’s children. But he is wrong. Sponsoring a bill in the state assembly that would further humiliate convicted sex offenders may play well politically for DeBose, but his proposal might well leave communities more vulnerable.

A parent's worst nightmare, child sexual assault is as pervasive as it is devastating. Experts estimate that more than 300,000 children are sexually abused in the United States each year, and that at least 25 percent of women and 10 percent of men experienced some form of sexual abuse during childhood.

But the stranger lurking around the school yard does not pose the greatest threat to children’s safety. More than 90 percent of sexual assaults committed against children are perpetrated by family members or acquaintances--and most of them are never convicted.

Even aside from the fact that we are unwisely spending the majority of our time addressing a minority of sexual offenders, strategies that employ humiliation, branding, and banishment may do more harm than good. Treated as pariahs, registered sex offenders—even those who committed offenses long ago—often cannot find employment or housing. They are driven out of communities, sometimes even out of entire states, forced to live in tents or trailers in prison parking lots, and even reincarcerated simply because they cannot fulfill a condition of their release: to find a place to live.

Pushing sex offenders to the margins of our society, with nothing left to lose, only increases the chance that they will re-offend.

Certainly offenders themselves are made more vulnerable. Registered sex offenders subject to broad public notification have been targeted by angry community members with harassment, threats, and even acts of vigilantism. A man in New Hampshire used a list of sexual offenders from that state’s Internet site to assault the men on the list. The man, who pled guilty to attempted murder, is serving a 10-30 year prison sentence after stabbing a registered sex offender and lighting fires in two buildings where other registered offenders lived. "I hope I’ve done a service to the community," he told the Portsmouth Herald, "These guys are sexual terrorists."

Harsh punishment is an appropriate response to childhood sexual assault. But when we find that harsh penalties do not deter these crimes, the answer cannot be an even tougher criminal justice response or placing responsibility for dealing with released offenders in the hands of the community. Instead we need to develop smarter strategies that are not driven by fear and loathing.

Instead of making supervision longer, we need to make it better. As a start, parole officers dealing with sex offenders should receive specialized training, have more resources available to them, and carry manageable caseloads.

Perpetuating the myth that there is nothing we can do to treat sexual offenders serves no one. Quality treatment is effective in the treatment of sexual disorders. So along with punishment, we need to ensure that sex offenders receive treatment from the moment they are incarcerated through their return to the community. And when they do return—as most of them will—we have to guard against reoffense by making sure that they are connected to and invested in their communities in meaningful ways—with fair opportunities for appropriate employment and housing.

Finally, we need to focus on effective prevention measures that target both the danger posed by strangers, and the more common danger faced by children in their own homes.

Some crimes—like the recent highly publicized cases of children murdered by registered sex offenders—test our capacity to envision clear-headed and effective responses. But these are exactly the kinds of responses we need. Stripping offenders of their dignity and casting them out might make us feel better, but it diverts us from developing policies that would make our children safer.

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