Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Making Injustice Visible

In the aftermath of the vigilante murders of two former sex offenders, I was encouraged by this report from KOMO news in Seattle, which is more balanced than we usually see in the media.

Police say Drum planned on coming to Quilcene next, where I reside, to kill another former offender. Was I that close to becoming another victim, not only of a killer but a system? I wondered the same thing back in 2005, when another vigilante was on the loose after he killed two other former offenders in Bellingham, less than a hundred miles from my location.

In KOMO’s coverage, and comments frequently made elsewhere, a hideous truth is revealed. Many citizens of this country feel the vigilante is a hero. It is a very short step from celebrating a murderer to becoming one. How did it happen that so many citizens - seemingly in their right minds otherwise – advocate cold-blooded killing?

One very large reason is that, by singling out people who have committed a sex offense, legalizing their discrimination, forcing their exclusion, and sanctifying the hatred against them, the United States government creates the optimal conditions for vigilantism to thrive. It goes even further by publishing a convenient hit-list online.

In U.S. criminal law, an “accessory to murder” is one who aids a perpetrator in committing that crime without directly participating. I would argue that providing the names, photos and detailed locations of former sex offenders does directly participate, which defines an accomplice. But either way, make no mistake: Every time a registered person is attacked or murdered for being on the registry, the government itself is culpable.

Lip Service

Police tell us they understand the "unintended" message the registry sends. They claim to take our vulnerability seriously, stating on registry websites and the notification posters they hang up that harassment of RSO’s is illegal and will not be tolerated. My own experience indicates the opposite. Were any of the people who harassed or threatened me over the years charged with anything? Not a one. I've heard the same from many other registered people.

During his murder spree, the Bellingham vigilante created a hit-list of Level 3's from the information he gathered on the online registry. As the only Level 3 in Jefferson County at that time, I had reason to worry that I was on his list. But did I get a warning from authorities that I could be targeted? Not a word. How about when I contacted them on my own, asking how they planned to ensure that I, a publicized target, would be protected until the killer was apprehended? “Try not to worry about it.”

Of course the source of the problem is not the police. They are just following the laws and sentiments enacted by a society determined to demonize one group of people, regardless of mitigating circumstances, documented facts, or basic human rights. And when you deny the rights and protections of one group of citizens, while at the same time claiming they have equal protection under the law, you create an impossible conundrum for enforcement authorities.

Granted, the vigilantes who succeed in eliminating their targets are usually apprehended and charged with murder, so it seems that registered persons do finally get some equal protection once they are dead. But the accessory to the murders – the U.S. laws that identify and enable the targeting of citizens who have already served their sentences – is never apprehended. And so the killings continue.

“Hate crimes send a message that certain groups of us are not welcome and unsafe in a particular community.”
From the Hate Crimes Prevention Act Website

Our society claims to regard hate crimes as more heinous than the same crimes committed without the motivation of prejudice. Clearly, vigilante murderers like Drum should be charged with hate crimes, just as all others who intentionally select their victims because of their race, religion, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation or cultural identity. But no hate-crime legislation exists for registered sex offenders – an exceptionally vulnerable “cultural identity” created and defined by U.S. laws – so their murderers are not held accountable under these laws.

House of Cards

We are told repeatedly, despite some uncomfortable legal difficulties regarding the U.S. Constitution, that the Sex Offender Registry is necessary for the protection of children. But this 2009 study shows that thirty-six percent of all reported sex offenses were committed by children, and that most will never commit another sex offense. The sex offender registry supposedly created to protect children is now stigmatizing them for life. And making them targets as well.

We are also told repeatedly that sex offenders are a greater threat than other criminals because they have high rates of re-offending. Twenty years of studies have proven this perception to be categorically false. In fact, sex offenders have one of the lowest rates of recidivism of any type of criminal.

Twenty years of studies have also revealed that the isolating, tough-on-crime approach of the registry not only fails to reduce sex crimes, but actually creates conditions more conducive to re-offense by driving offenders into hiding and preventing them from rejoining society once they have served their legal sentence.

Sex offender experts, law enforcement authorities, legal experts, human rights advocates and nearly everyone familiar with the problems the registry creates agrees that it causes far more damage than it prevents, that it is unjustifiable legally and unworkable in practice. So why is this house of cards still standing? Is it because the war on sex offenders is politically popular, like the failed War on Drugs or the ineffectual War on Cancer, even when there is no rational or ethical justification for it? Is it because targeting sex offenders makes good press?

The public registry has failed in its stated purpose. Far from protecting children or communities, its real effect is no less than criminal facilitation of murder and vigilantism. The time has come for the United States to abolish it.

Creating Ripples

There was far more to Jerry Ray and Gary Blanton than the crimes they committed and answered to. They were sons, brothers, fathers and husbands who were loved by their friends and families. Now all these people are grieving in the senselessness of these slaughters and why they happened. I sure hope nobody tries telling them the registry is not a punishment.

Our evolution as humans, and as a society, has only ever occurred when we decided to extend compassion and human rights to those who had lost them, or did not have them in the first place. If we want to continue to evolve, wouldn’t forgiveness and restoration be better choices than the deliberate creation of an underclass, reinforced by legal authorities and subjected to the violence and harassment of the majority?

But how does a system so entrenched get changed? How can the public, media, and politicians be convinced that the registry has failed and it’s time to end it? Margaret Mead said it simply: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Steve at RSOonline wrote, “Let’s not forget that we are all connected. We’re either on the sex offender registry or friends and family of someone that is."

Indeed we are connected. With nearly 800,000 persons registered today, and our friends and family numbering in the millions, we have a very powerful voice. We can talk to people about the registry. We can blog, write, and tweet about it. We can e-mail our representatives and write comments in the media.

Together, we can do what Gandhi prescribed, which eventually liberated a nation. We can “Make Injustice Visible.”

In the spirit of compassion and connection, Shana at I love a Sex Offender initiated this fund drive to aid the widow of Gary Blanton. Please show her that she is not alone.