That’s the sort of response you can expect if you write about the broad category known as “sex offenders” and suggest that not all of them are the same or that some of them are punished too severely. In this case, I had noted that the decision to prosecute Fogle under federal law, which had been justified by factors that had little or nothing to do with the gravity of his offenses, had a dramatic impact on the penalty he was likely to receive.
Fogle ultimately was sentenced to nearly 16 years in prison, a penalty that was upheld by a federal appeals court in June. Had he been prosecuted under state law for the same actions, his sentence could have been as short as six months (the minimum penalty for possessing child pornography in Indiana, where Fogle lived) or as long as four years (the maximum penalty for an adult 21 or older who has sex with a 16-year-old in New York, where Fogle met the prostitutes).
The arbitrariness of Fogle’s punishment should trouble anyone who thinks fairness, consistency, and proportionality are essential to a criminal justice system worthy of the name. But the conjunction of two fraught topics—children and sex—makes it hard for people to think clearly about such matters. The fear and disgust triggered by this subject help explain why laws dealing with sex offenses involving minors frequently lead to bizarre results, including wildly disproportionate sentences, punishment disguised as regulation or treatment, and penalties for committing unintentional crimes, recording your own legal behavior, or looking at pictures of nonexistent children.
Unlike Russell Taylor, who ran Fogle’s charitable foundation, Fogle was not accused of producing child pornography. He was instead charged with looking at photographs and video of “minors as young as approximately 13–14 years” who were “secretly filmed in Taylor’s current and former residences.”
According to the government’s statement of charges, Taylor produced that material “using multiple hidden cameras concealed in clock radios positioned so that they would capture the minors changing clothes, showering, bathing, or engaging in other activities.” He also gave Fogle a thumb drive containing “commercial child pornography” featuring minors as young as 6. Fogle “on one occasion” showed this material to “another person.” That became the basis for a distribution charge, which was dropped as part of Fogle’s plea agreement. Fogle’s lawyers say that incident involved “one individual with whom [he] was then involved romantically, and it occurred in the confines of a locked hotel room.”
The voyeuristic material that Taylor produced did not involve sexual abuse of children. According to the charges, the guests caught on Taylor’s cameras “did not know that they were being secretly filmed.” Taylor’s actions, which earned him a 27-year prison sentence, were obviously an outrageous invasion of privacy and breach of trust, and Fogle bears responsibility, at the very least, for allowing the secret recordings to continue by failing to report him. (Taylor, seeking leniency, claimed Fogle had actually encouraged him to install the cameras.) But what Taylor did is not the same as forcing children to engage in sexual activity, and what Fogle did is even further removed from such abuse.
Under federal law, however, looking at child pornography can be punished as severely as sexually assaulting a child. Receiving child pornography, which could mean viewing a single image, triggers a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. The maximum penalty for receiving or distributing child pornography is 20 years, and federal sentencing guidelines recommend stiff enhancements based on factors that are very common in these cases, such as using a computer, possessing more than 600 images (with each video counted as 75 images), and trading images for something of value, including other images.
Although sex offender registries and the restrictions associated with them are supposedly intended to protect public safety, the evidence suggests they are mainly a way of imposing additional punishment on people who have already completed their sentences. The rationale for publicly accessible registries is that they will protect children by alerting parents to the presence of potential predators. But the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey indicates that more than 90 percent of sexual offenses against children are committed not by strangers but by relatives, friends, or acquaintances. Furthermore, nearly 9 out of 10 sex offenses are committed by people who were not previously convicted of a crime that would have put their names in a registry. Justice Department data also indicate that sex offenders are much less likely to commit new crimes than commonly supposed—less likely, in fact, than most other kinds of offenders.
Not surprisingly, studies that try to measure the impact of registration laws find little evidence that they work as advertised. If anything, they seem to be counterproductive, probably because they make it harder for sex offenders to reintegrate into society by publicly identifying them as pariahs, limiting their job prospects, and restricting where they can live. In Michigan, for example, registrants are prohibited from living, working, or “loitering” within 1,000 feet of a school, regardless of whether their crimes involved children. A 2013 study funded by the Justice Department found those restrictions were associated with an increase in recidivism. A 2011 analysis in the Journal of Law and Economics likewise found evidence that publicly accessible registries have a perverse effect on recidivism.
Read Jacob Sullum’s article in its entirety here at Reason.com