As a society, we lack the ability to deal with our problems without resorting to the blunt instrument of the criminal justice system. We must be failures as parents and as human beings in general, because we can’t seem to trust each other with even a little bit of freedom. We’re even suspicious of relatives, friends, and neighbors. Often, we’re especially suspicious of them. The only people we trust with our well-being are members of the fabulously wealthy, power hungry ruling class. When we get scared, they draft up oppressive, dangerous placebos we think we can’t live without.
Nowhere is it worse than with sex crimes. We’ve criminalized everything, and we’ve ratcheted up the punishments. The system now hands out life sentences like it’s giving candy to trick-or-treaters on Halloween. The luckiest defendants get probation, but it may be debatable whether they’re luckier at all. The government pries into and controls every aspect of their lives. They take lie detector tests about their most intimate details. They go to therapy and group meetings where they’re made to feel like slime. They’re kept away from minors, even their own children, and they’re told where to live, with whom to associate, and what technologies they can and can’t use. Many are forced to spend their whole lives reporting to someone. So the public can know about the miserable life they’ve been ordered to lead, we make them register too.
With regard to registration, I’m almost a little proud of my state. In Arizona, we’ve only made sex offender registration mandatory for certain offenses. For other offenses, it’s up to the court. I say I’m “almost” a little proud, however, because registration is only permissive in theory. In practice, courts begin with the presumption everyone should have to register. On occasion, they even say so. Better safe than sorry, right? Judges worry defendants might do something bad to someone if they don’t have the added stigma of publicly humiliation. To prevent theoretical future harm to presently unknown victims, courts do very real harm to the poor defendants standing in front of them.
People can find themselves standing before a judge and begging not to have to register for all kinds of things. Judges have discretion to order registration for defendants who masquerade as a minor in an adult film, for adult business violations that amount to little more than zoning, for strip club owners who don’t adequately keep minors out, for people who offend others with their sex acts, for guys who take a leak by the side of the road, and for adultery. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. An Arizona court’s authority to order registration is actually broader than you’d probably ever imagine because a defendant can be ordered to register for any crime committed with sexual motivation. Drive drunk to get laid? Steal a Hustler from a gas station? You may have something else to worry about. After you plead guilty, the government may go tell your friends and family and neighbors you’re a convicted sex offender.
No matter how absurd the charges may seem, what judge wants to risk it? Sexual motivation may be a broad concept, but it still means the crime somehow involved sex. Sex is scary. What if the defendant is really bad deep down and just got caught doing something not so bad? Being safe rather than sorry means we have to ruin lives. You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Plenty of good eggs get broken in our quest for security. We can pretend we only ruin bad guys’ lives, but that’s not the way it works. People know that deep down. They just don’t care.
The problem is at the root of our culture. In fact, it’s the foundation of most people’s outlook on the world. We don’t care about freedom or virtue. We care about quality of life, and we want to preserve it. We’ve developed the erroneous belief that the power of the state isn’t the biggest threat to our well-being, but rather the source of it. We are capable of holding that belief because we’ve been so stable for so long. It’s also because the bad things the government does happen to people who seem different from us. In criminal law, that means we pretend the government’s evil deeds are only focused on people who’ve done something wrong. That way we don’t feel bad for them.
All of this keeps getting closer to home for ordinary Americans. The government expanded what’s illegal little by little, then lots by lots. We aren’t all officially criminals yet, of course, but we will be soon at this pace. Even when we get there, people may still be thinking better safe than sorry because we won’t be catching everyone. By the time the government creep has crept over all of us, the punishments will be so harsh we couldn’t fight it if we wanted. We won’t see the error of our pathological thirst for safety until the government is so big and bad it’s undeniable to even the dumbest among us that the government has always been the real threat to our safety. Until then, not being sorry is here to stay.
Although there’s plenty of lip service given to the contrary, with one defendant after another, courts start with the assumption they’re going to impose registration. Rather than start with the idea that a person should be left alone unless there’s good reason to think the public might need registration to be protected from him, they start with a mindset that somehow justifies the public humiliation of other human beings as a default because of a vague fear they might regret something sometime in the future. It’s a symptom of a diseased worldview. It’s all about thinking we’re better off safe than sorry.
We may well end up a nation of single mothers by the time people figure out there’s something wrong. I should look on the bright side, though. Fathers won’t be able to see their kids because the terms of their sex offender probation won’t allow it, but luckily, kids can keep up with their dads online through the sex offender registries.