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Death penalty legislation is not about the death penalty

Also published in the Digest, Vol. XVII-1 and the Washingtonn DC Patch, Jan 15.

By Sandy . . .  A freshman legislator in South Carolina is putting forth a bill this session proposing that sexual crimes meeting certain criteria be considered capital crimes. Incidentally, legislators in Arizona, Missouri, Tennessee, and New Mexico have all proposed the same legislation, and Florida passed a very similar bill last year. *Since the original publications of this piece, Idaho has passed legislation allowing the death penalty for certain sexual crimes against children.

While the author of at least one bill has cited the deterrent nature of the death penalty— which is unsupported and even appears to be false—that is not the issue of concern. These bills are not about the death penalty. Florida’s Supreme Court has ruled that capital punishment cannot be used in such instances. New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009. Arizona and Tennessee have gubernatorial holds on capital punishment being used. Other than blatant grandstanding in some if not all instances—Florida’s governor is running for president—these bills are about one thing: the continued vilification of persons with previous sexual crime convictions.

Sexual crimes causing harm to others, especially to children, are serious and deserving of equally serious punishment. However, due to the federal mandate for each state to create a registry of persons with sexual crime convictions and the subsequent federal mandate for these registries to be made public on the internet, an identifiable sub-group of people was created, a sub-group ready-made to be America’s bogeyman: the sex offender.

Every year since then, in virtually every state, new legislation is proposed and often passed increasing in some way the punishments and restrictions against those who are or have ever been convicted of a sexually based offense.

  • The number of offenses requiring sex offender registration has increased almost beyond counting with some crimes of a non-sexual nature mandating time on the registry.
  • Since it is a “civil regulatory scheme” and not part of punishment, virtually all laws and restrictions can be and are applied retroactively.
  • Sentencing limits have risen, and states eschew formally adopting the federal guide[1]lines of AWA so that they can impose lengthier periods of required registration, some up to lifetime for all offenses.
  • The tremendous power of the U. S. Marshals has been weaponized against those on registries in every state; they receive huge grants for this purpose, making them one entity among many with a financial incentive to retain registries.
  • Law enforcement organizes and carries out sting operations bordering on, and sometimes entering into, the land of entrapment.
  • Vigilantes have organized and “help the police” in “sting operations” while individual vigilantes have hunted down and murdered those on registries.
  • The consequences of being registered fall to family members sharing the same home, including the registrants’ totally innocent children; entire families are, in effect, registered.
  • States rush to heap on laws and restrictions not required in the federal mandate and are in competition with each other to have more laws, tougher laws, more restrictions.

And thus, legislation requiring the death penalty in certain cases where life has not been taken is proposed. The legislators in some of these states know their bills are unlikely to succeed. They all know that, pass or not, some favorable goals—from their points of view—will be accomplished. Their constituents will see them as someone who cares about children, their safety, and “law and order.” The negative image of people with past sexual crime convictions will increase; after all, if they are deserving of the death penalty, they must be monsters, perpetual predators, incapable of rehabilitation.

As long as a sex offender registry exists, those on it will be America’s bogeymen. Creating an underclass who are, on one hand, expected to emerge from prison or probation, get a job, and rejoin society, and on the other hand are perpetually kept or hindered from those objectives by being made into someone that no one wants to hire, socialize with, or have as a neighbor is counterproductive to public safety, contrary to research findings, and an incredible waste in human and financial resources.

Sandy Rozek

Written by 

Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.

3 Thoughts to “Death penalty legislation is not about the death penalty”

  1. AvatarJL

    I just do not see how we will ever be without a registry. Everything is moving towards more and more punishment. Whether the courts will do the right thing is up to be seen, but every incentive to further this agenda is in place without a light at the end of the tunnel. In essence, those forced to register for the rest of their lives (myself from a non-contact flashing of a minor) have little to no hope for relief. Thus, I do not care; I do not want to better myself most of the time because society will always relegate me to being a monster who preys on children. I only make efforts to be a better person not because I’m forced to, as I explained – there is no benefit or incentive in the current system to do so, but because I want to change my life, get off probation, and move the hell out of this backwards, draconian country who preaches about second chances for all except those like me – an unwilling member of a “civil regulatory system.”

    1. AvatarTim in WI

      At times I’ve felt the same way as you. I’ve never let an opportunity for a FTR indictment go by without heading to court over it. Failures to Register come with a potential 6 yr. prison term here in WI(Class H felony). Nevertheless, off to trial I go. It was no different for the qualifying case in the early 1990s. I was offered deferred prosecution for 1 count of first degree sex assault. An actual attack, unlike your exposure case where no physical attack at all occurred. Because those who haven’t factually been found guilty are factually included in the regime, proves the original intent behind the regime wasn’t about something else altogether. Associate justice J.P. Stevens made that very point in the work up to Smith V Doh.

  2. AvatarTS

    Idaho wants to join this elusive club too with proposed legislation: Idaho bill to extend death penalty unconstitutional, aims for US Supreme Court review (Idaho Statesmen, 13Feb2024)

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