Orville Taylor | Sex offenders and punishment for life
There is something visceral about sex offenders and, in particular, males who commit sex crimes. Yes, we know that women who allow little boys to put on learner's signs and have sex with them are also paedophiles, according to statute and behavioural scientists.
However, the social sanctions for the rapist (and only males can rape) or the male paedophile are very severe. Rapists and child molesters have to be specially housed in penal facilities because, while criminals will tolerate multiple murderers and other serious felons, they mortally hate these bottom-feeding perverts and mark them for death.
The few exceptions are where the convict is famous, externally powerful, and has economic means to buy his safety, or is skilfully crafted to be a victim himself, or there is lingering doubt about his guilt or innocence.
Perhaps it is a case of honour among thieves why this moral code binds even the worst of criminal elements. Indeed, it might even be a deep appeal to our animal side. Among our primate cousins such as gorillas and chimpanzees, animals that break sex codes, such as forcing copulation with immature females, are brutally punished. Expulsion from the clan or death are likely consequences.
Yet, when sexual deviants among canines such as African wild dogs get chastised and show contrite behaviour, the offender may be allowed back into the pack. A penitent and submissive ape can also be permitted to return or remain. However, if his testosterone continues to ride him, he has no future in that society, and he has to live a nomad life or find another troop or pack.
Yet, among humans, conviction for sex offences is virtually a life sentence, and even in the most 'civilised' countries, you have to pay for the rest of your life and even beyond. This is something that I have never been able to understand. Like the death penalty, I accept that it connects to our animal side, rather than to human logic. Thus, if that is the argument, I agree that it is simply that. However, if it is based on sound jurisprudence or behavioural science, I want to know why sex offenders, even for the most minor offences, have to wear a scarlet letter for the rest of their lives, while multiple murderers, drug dealers and armed robbers are considered to 'pay their debt to society' as soon as they complete their sentences.
Several countries have sex offender registries where convicts' names and details are engraved. The modalities vary internationally and within countries. However, generally, once released, the typical sex criminal has residential restrictions, is barred from working near to schools, may even never have alone time with his own children, has a requirement to report his travel or changes of address, and many other conditions. Note, this is not for someone who is out on parole; it is for an individual who has done his/her time.
My own prejudice would make me not want to be in the same place as a convicted sex offender, however famous he is. But I recognise that it is simply that, my own bias and personal revulsion. But, is there any science that guides the life sentencing of sex offenders? Of course, most persons would want to know if the next door neighbour who barely greets you is a nasty little pervert who has pictures of you on his wall and is just waiting for the opportunity to jump the back fence. Or, does the super-friendly new deacon have a dark past? There is a visceral fear that sex offenders are unfixable. Therefore, to protect the rest of society from these 'scum' they must wear a bell and red letter, which make would-be victims aware of the risk.
Data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for the period 1990 to 2010 showed that contrary to the gut feeling that we have about sex offenders, the annual rate of arrest for repeat offending was 6.5 per cent. For drug-related convicts, the rearrest rate was 29.8 per cent. Armed robbers had a more than 15 per cent recidivism rate and almost 12 per cent of drunk drivers do not seem to learn from their initial arrests. Criminals who committed non-sexual assault had an 8.3 per cent rearrest rate.
High reoffending rate
In the USA, the country that has the largest percentage of its residents in prison, and thus, whose criminal justice statistics are most robust, the data do show higher rates of repeat sex offending among sex offenders. However, while "child molesters, rapists, and sex offenders overall are far more likely than non-sex offenders to reoffend with a sexual crime," they are less likely to reoffend at all. This has been borne out by Roger Przybylski using data provided by the American National Criminal Justice Association. Furthermore, given the increased scrutiny, the data might be even more skewed because higher surveillance must be correlated to higher detection.
However, he/she is also less likely than a robber, murderer, or drug dealer to commit the same offence for which he/she was initially convicted. More interestingly, a sex offender is more likely to be arrested for another non-sexual crime than a sex offence. In other words, among all categories of criminals, sex offenders are the least likely to do what they did before. Interestingly, among this class of offenders, rapists, incestuous 'family rams' and male paedophiles that prey on girls are less likely to reoffend after release. However, the subgroup that has the highest proclivity to reoffend is males who prey on boys. Given all this, why shouldn't there be a criminal offender registry for all major crimes and not just sexual offences?
My lack of legal training makes the jurisprudence invisible to me here. However, my behavioural science doesn't help me either because the answers are not clear.
As repugnant as sex offenders are, there is a lingering question that there might be something systemically unjust about their treatment.
- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to email@example.com and tayloronblackline