Most child molesters aren't pedophiles and can change, but stigmatizing them reduces their chances
With the first implementation in Southern California of Megan's Law, which requires a police department to notify neighborhoods when a registered sex offender is residing in the area, we as a society must ask ourselves whether our criminal justice system is appropriately dealing with these individuals.
Creating mass hysteria in a neighborhood by alerting citizens to the presence of a convicted molester does not solve the problem. Indeed, it adds new problems.
Once a court convicts a defendant of molesting a child, the court, not society, must determine the sentence. Society appears to believe that the appropriate sentence in every case is life in prison.
Granted, a life sentence seems to be the easiest solution, but sentencing every child molester to life without parole is simply not practical. California prisons, even at their current expansion rate, cannot accommodate such a large number of prisoners for that length of time.
Megan's Law is society's attempt to extend the offender's sentence even after he has served his allotted time in prison. Society must accept that child molesters are not going to be put behind bars for life. In addition, we must accept that there are different levels of molestation, and life imprisonment is not warranted in all cases.
Finally, we must also understand that under the current law, the offender is not going to come out of prison any better than when he went in.
Given these truths, we are faced with the question: What can we do to protect society once the offender has served his sentence?
Megan's Law is not the answer. I submit that the answer, however unpopular, lies in the rehabilitation of the individuals during, or instead of, prison.
There are two different types of offenders: those who are pedophiles, and those who are not. Pedophiles are the type of defendant who prompted Megan's Law, and perhaps for these individuals the law is appropriate.
The pedophile is incapable of controlling his urges. His sexual cravings are fixed on children, and his desires and fantasies center on the abuse of children.
These people can be helped, but only if they really want to be rehabilitated. The problem is that most pedophiles are beyond understanding the inappropriateness of their desires, and they believe they do not need help. The most effective treatment for the pedophile who wants to be rehabilitated is impulse-control therapy. Through therapy of this type, the individual learns to keep a tight grip on his emotions and fantasies. He must live in a controlled environment and not be allowed access to children. He must live in an activity-filled life and not allow his fixation on children to overwhelm him.
The reality, however, is that most pedophiles cannot be helped. They live in a fantasy world way beyond an expert's ability to reach them.
Defendants who are not pedophiles commit their crimes for other reasons. Often, they themselves were molested as children and have not dealt with the terrible events that happened to them. Rather, they live to suppress their memories. Under extreme stress or under the influence of alcohol, the one-time victim regresses to that time in his childhood and becomes an offender, usually against someone he knows.
These people can be rehabilitated. For them, therapy would normally include extensive time coming to terms with their own molestation as children. By understanding what happened to themselves, they can gain insight into what led them to molest others.
These defendants are not likely to reoffend. As long as they are diligent in their therapy and do not allow their lives to become too stressful, they can live as lawabiding adults. None of this excuses the behavior of these defendants, but it is important to note that they are much less likely to prey on neighborhood children.
Megan's Law should not apply to them.
Most defendants fall into the second category. Yet, sentencing for the most part, makes no distinction between the two types of molesters. To treat the nonpedophile as a pedophile creates the risk that the defendant actually will become one.
Here is what happens to the typical defendant convicted of first-time child molestation. The defendant is sentenced and put into prison, usually for three to eight years. Then the neighborhood is notified that a convicted molester, when released, is among them, and they should "hide the kids."
Rehabilitation is nonexistent. The individual comes out of prison with all his demons intact. He is dumped into a society that is specifically told to hate him and shun him. He has no life skills. None of the issues of the past molestation has been addressed.
The next time he is in a stressful situation or abuses alcohol or drugs, it is likely he will offend. Being placed in a hostile neighborhood could be just enough to put him over the edge. This behavior is largely avoidable with proper rehabilitation.
Out of self-interest, society should invest money in rehabilitation for sex offenders, rather than pass laws designed to create such a hostile environment that once they are released from prison, they have little chance of ever becoming productive members of society. If we rehabilitate these offenders, we and our children can all sleep safely in our neighborhoods and avoid the hysteria that Megan's Law engenders.