There is something about visiting sexcriminals.com that feels so right – yet so wrong. Perhaps it’s because as you search the profiles of sexual predators in your neighborhood for your own security and awareness, you are simultaneously creeping into the lives of convicted criminals who have served their debts to society. Or maybe it’s because when you find out that the man who serves your coffee is as weird as he seems, you know you can never treat him as nicely as you had before uncovering his past.
But whatever feelings the website evokes, its “I need to know” mentality has become unanimously acceptable in America. And thanks to expanding sex offender registration programs and Megan’s Laws, America’s need to poke and pry into peoples’ lives is becoming much easier to fulfill.
While a lot of the reasoning for such programs is logical – Megan’s Laws are named for a 7-year-old girl who was raped and murdered in 1994 by a convicted sex offender who lived across the street from her – at a certain point, legislative initiatives cross the line from being necessary to being just unfair and cruel.
In Ohio, state lawmakers are working to pass a bill requiring convicted sex criminals to have special bright green license plates on their vehicles. A similar bill was rejected in 2005, because the chosen plate color, pink, had too many other identities associated with it and because it required people convicted of even minor statutory offenses to have the plates. The new bill (marginally) limits the scope of the requirement and, if passed, would make Ohio the first state to officially brand its sex criminals.
Supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, this proposal comes on the heels of a bill passed in 2004 that requires convicted drunk drivers to display yellow license plates with red letters. The color-coded branding of criminals Ohio is experimenting with has, of course, received criticism. The American Civil Liberties Union has called it political grandstanding, and the plates have become known by some as Nathanial Hawthorne license plates, an allusion to the novel “The Scarlet Letter.”
The criticism and literary allusions haven’t kept several other states from adopting similar laws and considering more legislation.
There are certain arguments that make the license plate experiment and sexcriminals.com seem not completely irrational and malicious. Sex offenders and predators have one of the highest recidivism rates among criminals. Parents should be able to know which neighbors’ backyards to tell their children to stay out of. Teenage girls should know what car to avoid parking next to if they are in the grocery store parking lot late at night.
These points add up to very rational and necessary legislation. But there’s still something about such laws that makes me think it’s less about keeping people safe and more about having the unlimited ability to single out sex offenders.
When a car with a bright green license plate is driving on the highway, who isn’t going to slow down to stare at the guy behind the wheel? It’s the same reason why so many people tune into the popular TV show “To Catch a Predator.” People just need to know what the sicko soliciting minors online looks like and watch him answer the door naked, only to be busted by an NBC camera crew. It’s typical human inquiry.
But the problem with this growing desire for information and giving everyone unfettered access to criminal histories is that it’s encroaching on the lives of freed criminals, who have already served their punishments. Being branded for life and having everyone make snap judgments on them destroys these people’s lives beyond the point of reason. And in terms of the special license plates, criminal histories are being shoved in the face of others, whether they care to know or not.
A Florida bill for special plates for convicted drunk drivers permits police officers to pull over any vehicle with that plate, even without probable cause. This further shows how unreasonable the branding of freed criminals can become.
Continuing to increase everyone’s reach into other people’s lives isn’t just malicious and a complete breech of privacy, it’s an obstruction of free people’s right to life after they have served their debts to society. It gives Americans the excuse to treat freed criminals like objects instead of human beings. Sexual offender registries and other awareness programs are necessary and useful – to a point. But when it gets to the level where freed criminals can’t park their cars in their own driveways without them getting keyed, it enters the realm of being cruel, unusual and unnecessary.
Theresa Kennelly is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.