Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
On February 8, President Obama signed an unnecessary, cruel, and dangerous law. Passed by a unanimous Congress, International Megan’s Law requires the State Department to mark with a “unique identifier” the passport of anyone ever convicted in the United States of a sex crime against a minor. The offense could be sexting or consensual teen lovemaking. It could have happened decades ago or even have been expunged from the person’s record.
The bill’s sponsor, New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, proclaimed on the House floor that the law will “significantly thwart child sexual exploitation in the United States and abroad.” In an appendix to the Government Accountability Office report that inspired the law, the State Department countered that such an identifier would do nothing of the sort—that the government already may deny passports to people who have engaged in child sex tourism or trafficking, and, anyway, there is no evidence that registered sex offenders are using their passports to go abroad and commit crimes.
The Los Angeles Times called International Megan’s Law “vindictive,” just one more torture exacted upon today’s designated boogeyman. In the Washington Post, David Post noted that a passport is not just a travel document but also a “badge of citizenship”—of identity. He and others have compared the “unique identifier” to a Scarlet Letter, the yellow star, or the “J” the Third Reich stamped on the passports of Jews.
To a public whose appetite for punishment is insatiable, it is not enough to forbid the sex offender to stay anywhere.
Many warn that the stigma establishes a terrifying precedent, opening the way to the official branding of other categories of undesirables. Who is next, California attorney Janice Bellucci asked in an interview with the Marshall Project. “Is it going to be Muslims? Is it going to be gays?” Bellucci has filed a federal lawsuit to stop implementation of International Megan’s Law, on behalf of California Reform Sex Offender Laws, part of a national advocacy network of “registered citizens,” as they call themselves.
But it is not as if Americans convicted of sex offenses were exactly free to move about before the law’s passage. If you are a registered offender, you have to notify the authorities before leaving your state and check in with the sheriff or registrar when you get to where you are going, even for a short stay.
Five states advertise your shame on your driver’s license. Some use a code recognizable not just to the police but also to every cashier who asks for ID. Louisiana and Oklahoma emblazon the card with the words “sex offender.”
In some states, released sex offenders don’t need licenses; parole conditions bar them from driving. Most registered citizens under corrections surveillance are banned even from virtual travel: depending on the terms of parole or registration, social media, or the whole Internet, may be verboten.
For those convicted of a sex crime, it is onerous or impossible to travel. Thanks to residency restrictions cordoning off “child-safe zones” from 300 to 2,000 feet around daycare centers, schools, parks, bus stops, or libraries, states and municipalities also make it onerous or impossible to live anywhere.
And in no small amount of territory—amusement parks, along with voting booths located in schools, are the latest public spaces declared off limits—a sex offender cannot even be.
Since Representative Smith has been flogging International Megan’s Law for years, he probably knows the law is a sham, in terms of crime prevention. If he is so interested in sex crimes against children, he also ought to know that, as reams of data show, recidivism rates among sex offenders are low. And, because it is usually friends and family, not strangers, who hurt children, the restrictions do not protect them.
In fact, if he were interested in crime prevention, the Congressman might listen to criminologists who study how people desist from crime. The key to staying legit, says one persuasive school of criminal re-integration, is that the wrongdoer acknowledge the harm he has done, yet understand his crimes as the bad acts of a good person. Rather than remind him over and over that he is an irredeemable pervert—as these laws do—he must be able to move past that identity and reclaim everything else he is: father, friend, cook, computer technician, veteran, voter, traveler.
To support that change, University of Vermont sociologist Kathy Fox says, the community must demonstrate to the former offender that he lives in “the same moral space as ordinary citizens.”
“Not only must a person accept conventional society in order to go straight,” writes Shadd Maruna, dean of the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, in his influential book Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives (2001). “Conventional society must accept that person as well.”
Americans don’t believe a sex offender can change, so they just want to “contain” him—or better yet, banish him. Yet now that they have driven him to the edges of the land, International Megan’s Law may deny the pariah even exile.
To a public whose appetite for punishment is insatiable, it is not enough to forbid the sex offender to stay anywhere or go anywhere. The people’s wish, it seems, is that he would cease altogether to exist. And when he does cease to exist, that is not enough either.
Theseus gave Oedipus sanctuary when the epitomic incest perpetrator returned after years of spiritual and physical exile to die and be buried in Athens. What would the king have done if he were Maine’s governor in 2015 and the legislature had sent an updated veterans’ burial rights bill to his desk? That law, passed last June, bars any person who has been convicted of “a serious crime, such as murder, a sexual offense or any crime punishable by imprisonment for life” from interment in the State Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery System. Can the sex offender not be forgiven even in death?
Judith Levine is the author of five books and countless articles exploring politics, policy, and public emotion, especially at the intersection of sex and justice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and a small town in northeastern Vermont.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.