Some legislators mistakenly believe the best way to deter crime is to have increasingly tough punishments associated with findings of guilt. This particular strategy does not necessarily work. Texas has some of the most draconian punishments of any state.
A primary case in point is the use of the death penalty.
No state of the Union has executed as many people as has Texas in the past several years. Yet, Texas’ murder rate exceeds that of other populace states. Most criminologist and many lawyers recognize the fact that crime is best deterred when the criminal actor is apprehended. The sureness of punishment is a far better deterrent than the likelihood or unlikelihood of severe punishment.
The Netherlands, for example, has a relatively low punishment indicator for most serious crimes having an average incarceration time of 4-6 months; and yet, the crime rate of the Netherlands is a small fraction of that in the State of Texas.
Punishment for murder, robbery or burglary is in Texas probably higher than most states in the Union. Yet, in a story published by The Houston Chronicle, Houston alone has over 200 unsolved murders. The rate of solved burglaries in our area alone is much higher than you would expect.
Politicians vote for arcane and drastic measures for several reasons. First, voting against crime and criminals is one of the easiest votes a politician will ever have to take. Second, many politicians mistakenly believe raising the punishment level on various crimes is cheap. As it happens, the real fact is that keeping a young man incarcerated in the Texas prison system is more expensive than keeping him enrolled in a master’s degree program at one of our colleges.
The third reason for such blind allegiance to tougher measures on crime with politicians is the fear of being accused at election time of being soft on crime. Unfortunately for the citizens of this state, many of the so-called “tough on crime” measures are actually counterproductive, as well as unrealistic and grossly unfair.
The primary case in point is the growing list of crimes which require persons convicted of them to register as sex offenders. The motives behind this legislation by State Senator Florence Shapiro of Dallas were good when first introduced but frankly have evolved into something which hinders law enforcement efforts as much as it might help deter sex offenders.
Senator Shapiro first passed the legislation in reaction of the kidnapping, sexual assault and death of a child in the Dallas area. The law was dubbed Ashley’s Law and was aimed primarily at pedophiles who are clearly dangerous to the safety of our children. Unluckily, the law has evolved to something else.
Currently, in Texas the list of sex offenders required to register with the local police is approximately 65,000 and growing daily. Unfortunately, the list does not distinguish between the pedophile who stalks, kidnaps and sexually molests young children and the drunk who was convicted of indecent exposure while relieving himself outside the bar. And, also included on the growing list are young men particularly who had oftentimes a fairly innocent relationship with a childhood sweetheart.
There are numerous young men on the list who had consensual relations with their girlfriends while the young men were 19 or so and the girl was 15. Many of these couples are happily married with children. Conviction of a felony is punishment enough for these situations without the onus of a life sentence of being required to register as a sex offender. It is still sadly true that the breadwinner in the family has to register as a sex offender and is extremely limited as to where he can live. He is restricted from being able to have relatives over with their children and probably finds it difficult once people learn he is on the list to find gainful employment with which to care for his family.
Originally, a meaningful list of sex offenders of truly dangerous offenders would allow police to quickly locate and pinpoint the location of the kind of sex offender we all fear. However, now it is next to impossible for local police to keep up with registrants on such a list with their growing number. Police note it is difficult, if not impossible, to thoroughly check whether or not people on the list are adhering strictly to restrictions placed on them by the law.
Watchful parents who take the trouble to check the list in their community are not told whether the guy down the street is a pedophile who committed some heinous act with an infant, or whether the young man is in trouble for having an affair with his girlfriend while they were both in high school.
The fear of being accused of standing on the side of sexual predators is so powerful that it is next to impossible to pass meaningful legislation to correct this situation. In fact, during the recent session of the Legislature, Representative Todd Smith introduced and passed virtually unanimously through the House and Senate a bill to alleviate the problem of consensual sex between young people. His opponent accused him of being on the side of sexual offenders in his next election effort, and the bill was vetoed by Governor Perry.
In the meantime law enforcement will continue to be confounded about which registered sex offenders are dangerous and which are not.
Also, in the meantime, here is Henry, who was convicted in New Jersey at age 19 of sexual assault because he had fondled his 15-year old girlfriend outside of her clothing--even though at the time he truly believed she was older than 15, having been told that was her age. Although his offense was a misdemeanor in New Jersey, Henry will have to continue to register in Texas as a sexual offender even though he and his girlfriend, Sarah, are now married with children.