Ontario resident [name withheld], 52, will serve 30 years in a Georgia prison after being convicted of attempting to entice a child to engage in sexual activity and possession of child pornography. In 2007, [name withheld] drove to Atlanta to engage in sex with an "11-year-old girl" he had communicated with online. It was actually a sting operation - there was no girl. When he arrived in Atlanta, [name withheld] was arrested.
While a 30-year sentence is almost unheard of for such a crime in Canada, it is not unreasonable. [name withheld] had spent more than a month communicating with the "girl," and then drove several thousand kilometres for the express purpose of having sex with her. He also made unproven claims of sex with underaged Canadian children. Keeping him off the streets until he is an old man is appropriate.
The resolution of his case - coming, as it does, alongside news of an international child pornography investigation that saw 72 individuals charged, including a Canadian - offers an opportunity to consider how our society deals with the issue of serious sexual crimes, particularly those involving children. While no one is arguing that [name withheld] is an innocent soul victimized by overly aggressive police and prosecutors, the same is not true of more marginal cases. It is because pedophilic sex crimes are so odious and destructive that we must ensure that the campaign to prevent and prosecute them retains popular support and withstands constitutional scrutiny.
Sex offenders who exploit children are among the most stigmatized individuals in society - perhaps even more so than murderers. Even the unproven allegation of a sex crime against children can wreck a marriage, break up a family, end a career and cause a person to enter a spiral of hopelessness and substance abuse.
Since all of us - politicians, especially - want to be seen as enemies of criminal sexual abuse, we sometimes ignore the truth that not every sex offender is equally monstrous. Naive teenagers who "sext" - exchange sexually explicit photos of themselves via cellphones or the Internet, for example - should not be lumped in together with professional child-porn distributors. Yet that is what many American states have done - ruining young lives in the process. The same goes for consensual sex acts between young adults and teenagers whose sexual relationship runs afoul of age of consent laws. (On this score, we support the federal Conservative's amendment to the age of consent, which raised it from 14 to 16, while exempting consensual sex for those within a five-year age window). In other cases, police sting operations are so aggressive that they venture into the realm of entrapment.
Sex criminals have no political constituency: Even many civil-liberties types - who would gladly defend an accused terrorist or drug dealer - run the other way. This is a less-than-ideal state of affairs: The administration of justice, no matter how heinous the underlying crime, always requires a set of checks and balances to rein in the unfettered discretion of police and prosecutors. Yet as things now stand, police in many jurisdictions, including in Canada, can announce trophy indictments against alleged sex criminals and then let their cases twist in the wind for years before bringing them to trial or letting them go for lack of evidence. Either way, guilty or innocent, their lives get ruined. That is not justice.
An example of the dominant mentality in political circles is that of Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak. As he campaigns for the province's Oct. 6 election, he is suggesting a plan to make the province's sex-offender registry publicly accessible, plus mandating that every person on the registry wear a GPS tracking device on his body at all times, permanently. This is simply preposterous. Either you get a judge to declare a convict to be a dangerous offender who must be kept in prison indefinitely or you let him out once he's served his debt to society, in hopes that he can build a respectable life. You do not release him into society as a permanent, unemployable social leper. That's the worst of both worlds.
Such a mentality can lead to grotesque outcomes. In 2009, the media reported on a makeshift "pedophile camp" under a Miami, Fla., bridge, where some 70 registered sex offenders were living. Barred from living anywhere within half a mile of a place where children congregate (parks, schools, daycare centres, etc.), there was literally nowhere inside city limits where these men could legally reside. This led to the surreal spectacle of Florida correctional officials dropping off newly released convicts at the bridge, and issuing them identification listing it as their new home address. Concentrating such men together as a quasi-homeless quasi-feral pack and denying them even basic human necessities will make them more dangerous, not less. But what politician has the guts to admit that the 2,500-foot law is a bad one?
Protecting children from sexual violence must remain enshrined as a central goal of our criminal-justice system. But we cannot pursue this goal at the expense of creating a Kafkaesque police state. There is a balance to be had here. And we should not be so taken up with righteous fury at sex criminals that we instead give in to a spirit of mere vigilantism.