About 100 U.S. teachers, mostly women, are charged with sex crimes each year, although many others go unreported. Affairs between teachers and students are becoming more common in both the U.S. and Europe, probably because the rise of social media has made communication easier and more private. In most of Europe, the age of consent is 14, while in American states it's 16, 17 or 18. But regardless of students' ages, teachers may be considered predators because their authority implies a potential for duress. No coercion may have been used and the student may even have bragged about the experience to his friends. Yet punishments for sex offenders are draconian, commonly far out of proportion to the crime.
Recently, a 23-year-old Minnesota teacher had an affair with a 15-year-old boy and now faces seven charges, including sexual assault of a child, use of a computer in a sex crime, child enticement, causing a child to view pictures of sexual activity, two counts of exposing genitals, and subjecting a child to harmful materials. The woman has also been charged with "brutality," even though the boy had a second encounter with her and even denied the affair in order to protect her. Fired from her job, the woman is now subject to a sentence of 40 years in prison and a $100,000 fine if convicted of all charges. She could also be branded a sex offender for many years, if not for life. Her career is likely ruined.
An article in "Reason" magazine says that "when people hear the term 'sex offender' they just panic." The result is that laws governing such affairs are commonly chaotic, cruel and even unconstitutional. Some states impose severe penalties for non-threatening behavior, such as urinating in public, to be kept on a registry for life. Some registrants are as young as 9 years old.
The federal government requires all 50 states to keep registries on sex offenders, which currently lists nearly a million people. Originally available only to law enforcement agencies, these registries are now accessible to everyone. There is no forgiveness, no second chance, regardless of how successfully the offender may have turned his life around. At one time, sex offenses would appear in newspapers and then be forgotten. Today, they are preserved on the internet like flies in amber.
The idea that sex offenders are irredeemable is a myth. "Reason" reports that a repeat offense over a period of five years is only about 7%. "People who commit sex offenses have the lowest recidivism rate of almost any crime besides murder." Only 5% of those on the registry had committed previous offenses. Yet in their neighborhoods they may forever be treated like lepers.
Once on the registry, they are subject to discrimination in housing and employment. Governments can forbid them to live, work or travel in certain locations, even forbid them from picking up their children from school or taking them to a park. They are commonly forbidden to come within 2,000 feet of a day care center, a church, a pool, a playground or any place where children might gather. Parents have been forbidden from visiting their children in hospitals. All this puts stress on families and invites shunning by coworkers and neighbors. Registrant households have been required to place warning posters on their doors at Halloween. Some convicts must wear GPS ankle monitors for years.
Fortunately, these injustices are being challenged on various fronts. Several NGOs, including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and lesser-known agencies that specialize in opposing bizarre sex laws, are challenging sex registries, as are state legislatures and law firms filing class action suits. California now allows offenders to petition for removal from its registry after 10 years; 90% of registrants won't be on it for life. New York will no longer restrict places of residence. North Carolina has stopped blocking access to the internet. Ohio has ended lifetime registration of juvenile offenders. Many other states have admitted that their sex laws are too broad, or are ex post facto, or cruel and unusual. A few, notably Texas and Florida, are toughening their sex laws.
A million Americans are being denied the right to a normal life. But conscientious people will not allow this evil to go unchallenged.
Calvert is a retired political science teacher who lives in Fargo.