After almost three decades, a case that raised fears and paranoia regarding child safety across the country has reached conclusion. The body of 11-year old Jacob Wetterling, who was abducted in 1989 while out with friends, was recovered on information that was given in a plea bargain by someone connected to the case. The circumstances now shift to the family, which no doubt will grieve in coming to terms with the fact that their son left this world too soon at the hands of a monster. It is a reminder that there are terrible people out there that would do unspeakable acts of cruelty against any of us if given the chance, and that we must be vigilant in standing against them. Sadly, as much of a tragedy as Jacob’s death has been to his family and friends, the story doesn’t end there.
In haste to try and deal with the abduction of Jacob 27 years ago, many across the nation (especially public officials) pushed for the implementation of sex offender registries…ultimately culminating in the passing in 1994 of a national database concerning those considered “deviant offenders”. However, while the impetus behind such policy was to promote public safety, the reality has ended up being anything but. In truth, the implementation of a registry of sex offenders has ended up encompassing far more individuals that could hardly be considered menaces to society. Many have gotten on the list simply as a result of expansive age of consent laws, which penalize young people who have sex with other young people. A moment of drunken streaking could also land one on the list, or even for urinating in a bush. This has led to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people to be condemned to a charge that will remain with them for their entire life, and therefore impact their future careers and livelihoods. Data have also shown that the fear of supposed “stranger danger” and “high recidivism” of offenders are not substantiated through analysis…with people to more likely be in danger from someone they know, and the chance of someone re-offending through sex to actually be lower than any other crime except murder (http://www.newsleader.com/story/opinion/columnists/2014/07/31/paranoid-kids-parks/13427539/; http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2010-09-10/1080261/; http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/rsorp94.pdf; http://nypost.com/2016/01/06/labeling-sex-offenders-passports-is-overkill/). Therefore, what was intended to be a policy that promoted security has actually done the opposite. So much in fact that Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, who was initially supportive of such strict policy, has changed due to seeing what unintended consequences have befallen so many. Courts have also finally begun to realize the same thing, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruling recently that the sex offender registry list in Michigan ends up creating “moral lepers” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/08/26/court-mich-treating-sex-offenders-as-moral-lepers-restrictions-struck-down/).
Ultimately, indeed there should be punishment for those who commit heinous acts. However, what the fallout from Jacob’s tragic abduction and death should provide is a reminder of how we must be cautious with being too hasty in crafting policy in response to disasters. The data clearly show the consequences of not doing so.