"The thing that bothers me is the notion that there is no opportunity for rehabilitation, no opportunity for a convicted person to re-enter the community and become a productive member of society," said defense attorney Steven Cron, who represented comedian Paula Poundstone in a sex abuse case. "Albeit, these are horrible crimes, and people need to be punished for them. But people also grow and should be allowed a chance at redemption."
Sex crimes, some argue, are seen as so heinous — especially if the victims are children — that the offenders are almost immediately stigmatized and labeled as predators, when in many cases they may suffer from a mental illness. And sex offenders, these critics say, do not enjoy the same rights as other convicts when they are released. They are never truly given a chance redeem themselves because they are ordered to register with local law enforcement and members of the community can find their names in sex offender databases.
Popular belief is that most sex offenders will attack other victims after being released from prison, but statistics indicate that is not true. Studies by the Bureau of Justice say just 2.5 percent of convicted rapists are arrested again for sexual assault within three years of release.
"To make such a broad-stroke statement — that all sex offenders are dangerous and need to be imprisoned for life — I'm not going to take that position," said Dr. Fred Berlin, associate professor of psychiatry and founder of the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins University. "There is no evidence that shows that most sex offenders will re-offend and attack other victims. There is nothing to support that."
What Is the Best Approach?
Since a convicted child molester raped and killed 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey in 1995, all 50 states have adopted versions of "Megan's law." These laws require convicted sex offenders to register their whereabouts with local law enforcement officials and enable residents to check databases to find out know whether any offenders are living in their neighborhood.
The law's weakness is that it relies on offenders to register voluntarily. Resource-strapped and overwhelmed law enforcement officials are often not able to verify the whereabouts of offenders, and thousands of released sex offenders are not registered in criminal databases.
Some say the problem in handling sex offenders is not necessarily legislative but with channeling resources.
"The problem with the criminal justice system is that it tends to over-prosecute a case," said John LaFond, law professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. "You see expensive solutions proposed that involve putting heavy burdens on an already overcrowded prison system. And some communities are bombarded with information [about sex offenders] that, quite frankly, doesn't do them a lot of good. I'm for keeping sex offenders convicted of serious, violent crimes in prison for long periods of time. But what you also need is a middle-of-the-road solution."