Sunday, June 27, 2010

Is Al Gore A Sex Offender?

There is a difference between violent rape and other forms of sexual misconduct, just as there is a difference between the inappropriate touching of a child and that of an adult. We all recognize that in the cold light of day. Perhaps that is why Al Gore is being given a pass.

The former vice president apparently invited a masseuse up to a Portland, Oregon hotel room in the Hotel Lucia in 2006. While there, he apparently made "unwanted sexual contact", needing more than a little kneading. The woman's lawyer contacted the police, but when she refused to be interviewed by law enforcement the case was closed for lack of evidence. The woman's lawyer said she intended to sue Gore civilly.

It sounds an awful lot like a shakedown to me, although one really does question the wisdom of inviting a woman up to one's hotel room for some innocent flesh pressing.

Apparently, the civil suit did not turn out as well as the woman hoped it would, because in 2009 she finally turned up at the police station to make a complaint.

Multnomah County District Attorney Michael D. Schrunk told reporters this week that the case was closed initially because "the woman was not willing to be interviewed by the Portland Police Bureau and did not want a criminal investigation to proceed." The case remains closed now.

I'm not rooting for the prosecution of Al Gore. But I cannot help wondering whether he is getting a pass because of his status. I suspect there are many men in Portland labelled sex offenders for mere unwanted touching of another adult. Why are these men labelled sex offenders? Is it because they lack Gore's status, wealth and power?

The testimony of a single witness, if believed, is enough to convict of a crime in the United States. In sex cases, that is sometimes all the state has, especially in child sex crimes. When a prosecutor decides in some cases that one witness is not enough, the public is right to wonder how such distinctions get drawn. Does a prosecutor have too much power when he or she can pick or choose whom to prosecute without review by any court or judicial officer?

Al Gore is lucky. He won't be charged with a sex crime. He won't be required to register as a sex offender. He won't be required to attend sex offender treatment where he will be required to admit to deviant desire or be sent to prison.

Al Gore caught a break. Good for him. But what about all the other guys who are destroyed by a criminal justice system that cannot distinguish a violent rape from an embarrassing mistake?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Sex Offenders, Lawyers and the Burden of a Voice

Almost every time I stand in the presence of a group of people to talk about sex offenses and accused sex offenders I face the scorn of those assembled. Few crimes are as reviled. But today was different. I stood in the auditorium of a church in Washington, D.C., and faced a friendly group. Imagine, a hundred or so folks looking upon me with approval.

I was a guest of the second annual conference on the reforming sex offender legislation sponsored by a group called, appropriately enough, Reform Sex Offender Legislation. It felt good to be among friends. I know the sorrow they and their families have faced in the relentless and indiscriminate prosecution of these cases.

One thing is abundantly clear: Our laws fail to discriminate between and among the various forms of sex offenses. There simply is a difference between a violent sexual offender and a young man who looked at a few pornographic images of children online or engaged in consensual sex with a young neighbor close in age. But the law requires a one-size-fits-all response to these offenses once a person is released from prison: requiring everyone to register as a sex offender is draconian.

I said as much and more to an audience already persuaded. They've lived on the front lines of this war against over-criminalization and hysteria. I felt today like a prosecutor: preaching to the choir.

At the end of my part of the presentation, someone asked what it would take to get a committee or group of lawyers together from around the country to serve as an intellectual catalyst for change. I told the speaker that I thought there was such support, although it might not yet have taken shape in the form of a formal committee. "You are closer than you think," I said. "You might just be the foot; and I might just be the ass."

I'm sitting on a train thinking about that remark. I've never really trusted movement lawyers. The law is not philosophy. Individual clients come to me and I do not want to be encumbered to anything than the very discrete and tangible interests of my client. No two clients are alike, each brings his or her own menu of issues to the table.

But I wonder, just now. I responded to the call to attend the event because I had seen one client after another socially decimated by the law's unfeeling and unthinking rigidity. I believe reform of sex offender laws is necessary. At this stage, I do not think that there is much the courts are willing and able to do. Most judges adopt a form of intellectual cowardice when things get tense: Like junior officers in the Nuremberg dock, they plead that they were just following orders when they mete out justice with a sledge hammer. They blame legislators for the rules they are sometimes ashamed to enforce.

I believe the front lines of reform will come in the state legislatures. That is where ordinary family members of those harmed by over-harsh laws can tell their stories to those with eyes open to the truth. We say of federalism that the states are laboratories of change. I believe this to be true. I do not believe the federal government is a progressive instrument for change: Its scope is so broad it panders to the lowest common denominator. John Walsh is a hero on the national set; I for one find the 25-year wake for his murdered son to be maudlin.

I don't know whether I am willing to join a committee of lawyers dedicated to changing the law. In confessing this, I acknowledge a certain moral and intellectual cop out. I left a promising academic career at its inception due to a certain epistemological weariness. If there were no larger truths, what was there to teach? The practice of law has liberated me, if not from the dark ghosts inhabiting a dark world, then at least I am liberated from the paralysis and seeming nihilism that comes of a too close familiarity with the leavings of what I sometimes feel is a spent Western intellectual heritage.

But the good people I saw in Washington, D.C., today issued a challenge that echoes. What can be done, they asked, about the suffering their families and friends endure? Implicit in their question was a request for help. I've some soul-searching to do. It's been perhaps too easy to sit on the sidelines and toss gratuitous scorn at visions of the good. Even if there is no certainly as to what goodness requires, that does not prohibit one from opposing unintended consequences resulting in something just this side of evil. I am not saying that sex offenders ought not to be punished; I am simply saying that not all offenses are alike. Voiceless people need others to speak for them.

Whether to become such a voice is a hard question to contemplate.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Call For Reform of Sex Offender Legislation

I'll be speaking this weekend at a conference in Washington, D.C., devoted to the reform of sex offender legislation. One hundred or so folks from around the nation are gathering to brainstorm on what to do about a body of law that is often harsh and indiscriminate. I should have reached out to readers here long ago for suggestions, but I didn't. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments section here. There's still time for me to amend my remarks.

My sense is that relief must come in the form of legislative action. The courts are simply ill-equipped to do much good. There are rare victories, such as the Ohio ruling by the state Supreme Court removing offenders from the sex offender list because the registration requirement violated the state's separation of powers doctrine. But this rare legal victory can be undone simply by drafting new requirements through the appropriate branch of government. Politics is where relief will come, not the courts.

What I see behind closed doors is frustration among judges and prosecutors in the following areas:

1. Requiring prison time and making felonious the violation of so-called Romeo and Juliet laws. These statutes typically involve claims of statutory rape between a minor and a suitor close in age. Consent is not a defense in these cases, and prison is mandatory. My sense is that there is support for legislation eliminating the requirement for prison time in such cases. It might also make sense to downgrade the offense from a felony to a misdemeanor to avoid the disabling effect of a felony on a young person's career chances.

2. Elimination of mandatory prison time for Internet-related crime in which there was neither attempted nor actual physical contact with another person. Many states and the federal government now require prison sentences for possession of even a handful of pornographic images of children. Judges often despair over the rigidity of statutory schemes requiring imprisonment of defendants in which there are no tangible victims proximately related to the possessory offense.

3. Increased accessibility to diversionary programs for those accused of child pornography offenses. Connecticut, for example, recently enacted a new psychiatric accelerated rehabilitation program. This program permits folks to submit to a period of probation and to get treatment for mental illness. If the applicant successfully completes the program, the criminal case is dismissed. The only problem with this law is that lawmakers have decreed that it is inapplicable for those accused of possession of child pornography. This legislative decision should not trump medical judgment.

4. Elimination of mandatory prison time for non-violent sex offenses. Lawmakers can easily and constructively express social disapproval of deviant conduct by rewriting these statutes to create a presumption in favor of prison time. But this presumption should be rebuttable for good cause shown.

5. The current mania over sex offender registries is little more than moral panic. The overwhelming majority of sex offenses are committed against victims by family members or caregivers with direct and consensual access to the victim. Sex offender registries are fueled by fear of stranger danger. Putting a man who abused a family member on a public registry merely stigmatizes an offender who little danger to the community at large. There should be a broader use of law-enforcement only registrations. These lists should not be disseminated to the public.

There is traction for these ideas among judges and prosecutors. When no one is watching, and they are free to speak their mind, judges and prosecutors are often in despair about a law too rigid in conception, and too inflexible in implementation to serve the ends of justice.

What other options have you heard mentioned behind closed doors?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Pushing Back Against Crazy Child Pornography Laws

Criminal defense lawyers have two reactions to cases involving possession of child pornography: either the lawyer does not take such cases as a matter of principle, or the lawyer takes the case with a sense of foreboding approaching despair. The law involving possession of child pornography is harsh; I will go so far as to call it savage.

An article in the forthcoming issue of the Washington Law Review offers limited hope. "Disentangling Child Pornography from Child Sex Abuse," Carissa Byrne Hessick, 88 Wash. U.L.Rev. (2010).

Hessick seeks to drive an empirical and logical wedge between the frequent claim that possession of child pornography is identical to, or worse than, the actual physical abuse of a child. These arguments are familiar. We justify long sentences by saying that if there were no market for prohibited images there would be no supply. Punish consumers and suppliers will evaporate. It is the suppliers, after all, who engage in hands on abuse. We saw how well that worked in the war on drugs.

This punishment by proxy theory raises troubling due process arguments, Hessick notes. It conflates actual harm with tangential harm. A person looking at a picture is not abusing a child, except in some attenuated, metaphorical sense. Indeed, there is little empirical evidence to suggest that looking and touching are related. Hessick goes so far as to assert that there is no empirical evidence linking actual abuse of children with mere photographs. Indeed, Hessick notes, even the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that in 84 percent of child pornography cases there is no empirical association between possession of pornography and actual abuse of children. One study even suggests the contrary: that in an era in which pornography is freely and widely available on line, men are actually less libidinous. (I have my doubts about that; the rage to procreate is as powerful as the desire to eat.)

Hessick notes that in some states penalties for possession of child pornography can actually be more severe than the actual abuse of a child. In Arizona, for example, the law permits a sentencing authority to impose a 10 year sentence for each prohibited image in a defendant's possession. Thus, the Arizona courts have upheld a sentence of 200 years for a man convicted of possessing 20 images. In such regimes, rational predators actually have a greater incentive to abuse actual children than to look at dirty pictures. Yes, Virginia, the law really can be an ass.

Hessick repeats the common observation that the risk of stranger-danger is vastly overstated. While cases of the abduction of children by those unknown to them are terrifying, they account for only seven percent of child abuse cases nationwide. Hessick wonders whether child pornography laws aren't really a weapon shooting at a fictional target -- the dirty old man seeking to gain entry to the home of an innocent stranger by barging through the computer screen. The real danger of actual abuse comes from those known to the child, a relative or caregiver with regular and unsupervised access to children. Focusing on child pornography displaces the anxiety about what is going on in our own homes when the lights go out.

A moral panic sweeps legislative chambers from one end of the country to other. Everywhere, sentences for possession of child pornography increase. Most judges are afraid to stand against this tsunami of grief for fear that they too will be swept away in the same crazy and unreasoning energy that brought us prohibition and a war on drugs. I recommend Hessick's article. It doesn't solve the problem of an unreasoning law applied in an unthinking manner. The article merely arms willing practitioners and reformers with the conceptual tools necessary to advance the cause of justice.

Hat Tip: JK
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