The law has failed on sex offenders. Rather than preventing crime, the law makes crime inevitable. California’s Fourth Appellate District court recently ruled current laws regarding where sex offenders can live as “unreasonable.”
This is not an isolated case, but a pattern. California’s judicial system has slowly shifted away from prevention and rehabilitation toward punitive retaliation. Obviously, criminals are not the most pitiable people so it’s hard to feel bad for a registered sex offender, but one measure of a developed society is how well it treats its most despicable members. An advanced society tries to put an end to the cycle of crime by rehabilitating criminals so they can atone for what they did and then get back to their lives. A less advanced society is content with punishing transgressors by casting them off into a life where crime is the only viable path.
According to San Diego Superior Court Judge Michael Wellington, San Diego has been content with punishment and unconcerned with prevention and rehabilitation for too long. The stigma attached to criminals, especially those accused of sexual offences, make it extremely difficult for them to find a job. Voter-approved Proposition 83,
“Jessica’s Law,” prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park. Less than three percent of multifamily houses in San Diego would be eligible, assuming those landlords are willing to rent the residence to a sex offender.
In the end, sex offenders are pushed out of the city and into scarcely populated rural areas with other criminals. The examples given by KPBS of four individuals challenging the legality of the residency restrictions are indicative of the problem: two individuals lived in the alley behind the parole office, one in his van and one with other sex offenders in a San Diego riverbed.
The conditions other criminals face are equally inhumane. The level of overcrowding in California prisons forced a judge to take control of the penal system. The surplus will be shipped back to the counties because the system can no longer handle all the criminals it produces. Punitive rules such as the three strikes penalty, up for voter review in the upcoming election, turn repeat minor offenders into lifetime prisoners.
Forced to the edges of society, these people don’t have access to jobs, rehabilitation services or even basic housing. They are forced into a life where crime seems like their only logical path. Their crimes vary but they are often loathsome acts, making it easy to dismiss their perpetual punishment. But this is when it’s most important for us to take a stance for justice. The goal of our judicial system should be to prevent crime and rehabilitate criminals, regardless of their offenses.
Our commitment to justice is not tested with everyday thieves, but in the extremes of criminal activity. We don’t test our devotion to rehabilitation with the little old lady caught stealing a ham to feed her starving grandchildren. We test it with child molesters and rapists. We must be able to treat those individuals with fairness and attempt to rectify whatever made them act in a criminal way.
Of course, such an overhaul of our attitude toward crime won’t be easy. We are accustomed to harsh punishment to scare people into not being criminals. The goal instead should be to eliminate the conditions causing an individual to do something illegal. Crime prevention needs to stretch beyond the legal system. The best antidote for crime is more available jobs, not more police officers. And a judicial system concerned with getting criminals the help they need to avoid future crimes would benefit society the most.
Punishing criminals without giving them a chance to rectify their wrongs is inhumane and it should be illegal. It’s time we start acting as the advanced society we know we are.