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 simply 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 and "brutality," although 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 teaching career is certainly 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 flashing, to be kept on a sex registry for life. Some registrants are as young as nine.
The federal government requires all 50 states keep registries on sex offenders, which currently list 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 forever, like flies in amber, long after punishment has been served.
The idea that sex offenders are irredeemable is a myth. Reason reports that a repeat offense within a period of five years occurs only 7% of the time. "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 may disallow 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. In smaller villages, this banishment leaves no place for registrants to live except outside of town. Households are often required to place warning posters on their doors at Halloween. Some convicts must wear GPS ankle monitors for years. All this puts stress on families and invites shunning by coworkers and neighbors.
Isn't this a form of punishment that is completely contrary to American jurisprudence, and to the American tradition?
Fortunately, opposition has begun to appear. NGOs, including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws, state legislatures, and law firms specializing in class action suits. They want sex laws based on research, not panic. So, 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. Ohio has ended its 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 million Americans are being denied the right to a normal life. But conscientious people are helping to put an end to this evil.
John Calvert is a retired political science teacher who lives in Fargo.
This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.