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Signs of paranoia over pedophilia

James Alan Fox, MetroWest Daily News, March 5, 2006

Mississippi, the state with more iís than any other, plans to turn its roadways into real "i-sores." Starting this summer, the Department of Human Services will adorn 100 roadside billboards with the images and offense descriptions of convicted sex offenders, particularly those who victimized children.

So, as some states strive to clean up and beautify highways, Mississippi will be littering theirs with ugly mug shots and disturbing reminders of children overpowered. Families enjoying a Sunday drive will see the scruffy face of some pervert along with banners such as "raped a 12-year-old girl."

Not surprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union is alarmed.

"It just continues to remind the public about who they are so when they are released, it just becomes another barrier to go on and start over and rebuild their lives," frets Nsombi Lambright of the Mississippi ACLU.

The intent, however, is not to stigmatize or punish the predators any more than they already are, according to Don Taylor, who heads up the agency behind the initiative. Rather, it is to increase awareness of "social pathologies."

Still, I worry about the children -- not just the ones who have been or will be targeted by these or other predators, but the many more impressionable youngsters who will be traumatized and terrified by the billboards. Raising awareness is not always a good thing when the awareness rises to a level that is out of proportion with the risk.

As a rule, increasing awareness without increasing protective resources does nothing but intensify fear.

Sex offender registries, even those accessible on the Web, require a concerned citizen to actively investigate the database. Seek and you shall learn. However, bombarding people -- and kids in particular -- with constant reminders that "boogeymen with penises are everywhere and are out to get you" canít be healthy for maintaining a sense of safety and trust in humanity.

Despite the disservice to children, it is understandable why Mississippi would be motivated to take this bold move. Sexual predators, especially pedophiles, have long been the most feared and disdained criminals. Besides the physical and psychological trauma they wreak upon their young victims, the special contempt that we hold for them is derived from the belief that they cannot be rehabilitated and that they are destined to re-offend if we are not every watchful of their whereabouts.

Of course, there is a slippery slope from defensive vigilance to unlawful vigilantism. No wonder a Bellingham, Wash., man felt justified last year in venting his outrage over a kidnapping, rape and murder committed by a repeat sex offender in Idaho by hunting down and killing two men that he picked from a local sex offender registry.

The perception that sex offenders are untreatable is based more on fear than fact. Sex offenders, even pedophiles, actually have a lower rate of recidivism than most other felons, according to a U.S. Department of Justice study of thousands of released convicts. Cured or not, many sex offenders are able to control their impulses.

So vigilance and public notification are fine, but excessively stigmatizing sexual predators does no one any good. Going that extra mile, as in Mississippiís billboard plan, is over-reactive, ineffective and just plain mean-spirited.

But what else do you expect from a state that embraces chain gangs and executions?

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University and can be reached at j.fox@neu.edu.

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