In Miss., signs of paranoia
By James Alan Fox
Monday, February 27, 2006
Mississippi, the state with more i's than any other, plans soon to turn its roadways into real "i-sores." Starting this summer, the state's Department of Human Services will adorn 100 roadside billboards with the images and offense descriptions of convicted sex offenders, particularly those who victimized children.
So, as some states strive to clean up and beatify their highways, Mississippi will be littering theirs with ugly mug shots and disturbing reminders of innocent children overpowered. Families enjoying a lovely Sunday drive home from church will see the scruffy face of some pervert along with banners such as, "raped a 12-year-old girl."
Not surprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union is alarmed. "It just continues to remind the public about who they are so when they are released," frets Nsombi Lambright of the Mississippi ACLU, "it just becomes another barrier to go on and start over and rebuild their lives."
The intent, however, is not to stigmatize or punish the predators any more than they already are, according to Don Taylor, who heads up the agency behind the initiative. Rather, it is to increase awareness of "social pathologies."
Still, I worry about the children-not just the ones who have been or will be targeted by these or other predators, but the many more impressionable youngsters who will be traumatized and terrified by the billboards. Raising awareness is not always a good thing when the awareness rises to a level that is out of proportion with the risk.
I am not trying to discount the very real problem of pedophiles who target young boys and girls, but I worry that this very public strategy will haunt children more than protect them. As a rule, increasing awareness without increasing protective resources does nothing but intensify fear.
Sex offender registries, even those accessible on the Web, require a concerned resident of a community to investigate the database in an active way. Seek and you shall learn. However, bombarding people--and children in particular--with constant reminders that "boogymen with penises are everywhere and are out to get you" can't be healthy for maintaining a sense of safety and trust in humanity.
Despite the disservice to children, it is understandable why the Mississippi Department of Human Service would be motivated to take this bold move. Sexual predators, especially pedophiles, have long been the most feared and disdained criminals in society. Besides the physical and psychological trauma they wreak upon their innocent young victims, the special contempt that we hold for these perpetrators is derived from the belief that they cannot be rehabilitated and that they are destined to reoffend if we are not ever watchful of their whereabouts.
Of course, there is a slippery slope from defensive vigilance to unlawful vigilantism. No wonder why a Bellingham, Washington man felt justified last year in venting his outrage over a kidnapping, rape and murder committed by a repeat sex offender in Idaho by hunting down and killing two men that he selected from his local sex offender registry.
The perception that sex offenders are untreatable and will recidivate, if given the chance, is based more on fear than fact. Sex offenders, even pedophiles, actually have a lower rate of recidivism than most other felons, according to a U.S. Department of Justice three-year follow-up study of thousands of convicts released from prison. Cured or not, many sex offenders are able to control their impulses.
So vigilance and public notification are fine, but excessively stigmatizing sexual predators does no one any good. Going that extra mile, as in Mississippi's roadway billboard plan, is over-reactive, ineffective and just plain mean-spirited.but what else do you expect from a state that embraces chain gangs and death sentences?
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at firstname.lastname@example.org.