At this very moment, the front-page story at cnn.com is about using iPhone applications to track sex offenders. With the tap of a touch screen, you can pull up a map of where you live, with highlighted addresses showing where sex offenders live. You can even see photos of them.
I’ve long been uneasy with these types of offender registries. Rape and other sex crimes are horrible, of course, but I’m not sure about the underlying logic of such registries. When we sentence someone to jail, it is to punish them for wrongdoing, so that they can pay their debt to society. The reason we don’t imprison every criminal for life is because we think most crimes don’t deserve life-long punishment. Different states disagree about which crimes merit what length of punishment, but we all agree there is some scale. And once a prisoner’s time is up, they get released. But with these registries, they aren’t really free. Not when your face and address are easily accessible public knowledge. If these people are so dangerous, or their crimes so severe, then why not either lock them up for longer, or do away with the registries?
But so far, all this is assuming that those on the registries are dangerous rapists or sex offenders. While many of them indeed are, the truth is that this is not the case. The Economist recently had an editorial on the unjust and ineffective nature of U.S. sex laws, and this post recently made some rounds through the blogosphere. I’ll reproduce a very telling chart:
The peak on this graph is age 14. I want to make it clear that it is certain that teenagers, even those as young as 14, can indeed be guilty of sex crimes that deserve punishment. But when you see this graph, and examine the unjust nature of many of these laws, it seems clear that we are severely penalizing many teens for being teens. And now they can be whipped up on any iPhone.