Marshall Frank, Community columnist Published 11:03 a.m. ET Dec. 31, 2018, Florida Today
Florida Bar Association President Michelle Suskauer recently penned a column published in FLORIDA TODAY about needs for reforming the criminal justice system. In her piece, she focused on a number of important issues about mental health, curbing recidivism, re-entry, sentencing and much more.
Missing among these targets for reform, however, is the ever-present quagmire dealing with sex offenders, a topic most politicians and justice officials prefer to ignore. Suffice to say, the very term “sex offender” presents a vile image that calls for eternal condemnation of anyone within that category. When offenders finish serving time, they are required to register for life within law enforcement, even if they were not predatory. This goes for the federal as well as state systems.
A young man aged 19 who engages in consensual sex with a 15-or-16-year-old female will wear the Scarlet Letter for life, forever banished from living in specific locales within a certain distance from schools, parks, bus stops, or anywhere where youngsters gather. This doesn’t mention the inability to get jobs or housing because the condemnation is far reaching. That 19-year-old offender will sustain a life sentence even if not all behind bars.
Have we gone crazy?
Bridges and causeways, such as the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami, have been rife with homeless men by the scores, seeking shelter and to survive day to day. The same goes for other cities around the country.
Meanwhile, the music, fashion and entertainment industries blatantly saturate film, print and airwaves with strongly suggestive sexuality. Implied or explicit, sex is ubiquitous in the 21st century, “normal” among all ages. According to the Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, 30 percent of high school students reported being sexually active. Sixteen-percent of student females reported having sex with someone they just met or was just a friend.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice (2016), the age with the greatest number of sex offenders is 14. Much like adult offenders, they are required to register leaving them stained forever. The study reports that 23 percent of all sex offenders are under age 18.
I know one 50-year-old man who was interested in porn within the privacy of his home. One day, curiosity called and he downloaded a porn site which included underage youngsters. Such sites are monitored by law enforcement. He was arrested, searched and convicted for possession of child porn. Investigation revealed no history of predatory behavior. He looked at pictures.
Law enforcement was able to pick from the lowest hanging fruit to establish a foolproof prosecution. Because of minimum-mandatory sentencing laws, the judge was compelled to give him six years in prison. He had to live in a sex offender compound when released. He is now on probation for 12 more years, plus he must register as a sex offender wherever goes, for life.
His crime was being a consumer, which was wrongful. But did he deserve a life sentence living under a black cloud his entire life, forever banished by society? Perhaps more law enforcement manpower should be directed toward the producers of child pornography.
The term “sex offender” is a broad brush covering one extreme to the other. It’s easy to access Google on your computer, enter a zip code and type “sex offenders.” It will reveal names and addresses of registered sex offenders, but not the actual crime. It does not tell you if the offense was forcible rape, consensual sex with a teen, peeing in public or looking at child porn.
It is important that prosecutors and cops maintain good batting averages getting convictions for crimes in general. However, with sex offenders the quality of enforcement activity should be more important than quantity.
Meanwhile, criminal justice overhauls should also tackle the problem of broad brushing all offenders for life. Imagine being 80 years old, still paying for a crime committed at age 18. Something’s wrong with that.
Marshall Frank is a retired police captain from Miami-Dade County, author and frequent contributor. Visit marshallfrank.com.