Despicable policy enacted in Bradford County, FL

This is one of the most outrageous and cowardly examples of local bullying I’ve ever heard of. Bradford County, Florida, led by Sheriff Gordon Smith, will be placing signs outside the homes of residents who were, at any point in their lives, convicted of a violent sexual crime against a child.

This kind of idea is always enormously popular: one online poll shows 86% support. Many people are simply incapable of approaching questions like this with cold reason rather than fiery emotion. But this is policy-making at its absolute worst, playing to the irrational and vengeance-based passions and fears of the public, instead of showing the courage and integrity to resist. The American people have a very disturbing retributive streak in the arena of criminal justice; we are, to my knowledge, the only people in the democratic world who still support the death penalty, and when it comes to society’s most heinous criminals, i.e., child predators, one gets the feeling that there is virtually no proposal for vengeance and humiliation that would not generate popular support. The role of an elected official should be to make disinterested, reasoned decisions that maximize well-being, not to play to the worst instincts of his or her constituents.

The United States already has a national registry of convicted sex offenders. Anyone with an internet connection can log on and find out if any predators live in their area and precisely where they live. This would seem to suffice.

Furthermore, the offenders currently residing in Bradford County are, so far as we know, living as law-abiding citizens. They have served their time and are now free. A rather simple and obvious point, but still one worth making.

What could be next? Forcing them all to get tattoos that say CHILD PREDATOR on their foreheads (something that would doubtless receive strong public support)? Glenn Greenwald, on Twitter, mentioned a friend’s sarcastic proposal that a reality show be created in which citizens get to torture the people living behind the red signs. Ratings would be through the roof.

Aside from how morally bankrupt the policy is on its face, it could have dangerous repercussions. Putting that sign up in front of someone’s house is pretty close to just putting a target on his back. Would it surprise anyone if these citizens’ homes were vandalized, or if they were physically assaulted? Surely, the likelihood of this happening exceeds the likelihood of a local child being victimized who would not have been were it not for these signs.

Child predators are, to repeat, society’s most heinous criminals. That is why we have a website telling us where they live, and that is why they typically receive very harsh legal sentences. To be convicted of a violent sexual crime against a child in the United States is to essentially forfeit even the most basic social acceptance for the rest of one’s life. No class of citizens are more mercilessly demonized and less able to reintegrate into society after serving their time. Whether you agree with this approach or not, it is the present approach, and to pile on by essentially inciting not just further demonization, but quite possibly violence, against these people is the height of thoughtless political bullying.

Nobody is proposing that we have signs identifying the homes of Wall Street criminals who ruined the lives of millions of people and helped destroy the global economy, or of the torturers and killers of the Bush administration, are they?