Danger that lurks is deadliest of all. Nothing is eerier than the notion that the shadows are concealing a predator who is measuring you for a shroud. More fearful still when children are his prey.
Which brings us to one of society’s sorest vexations, sexual predators. This subject has lately been a malign and pressing presence in the press. First Jessica Lunsford went missing in Citrus County, Florida. After a few days, she was found dead. The man arrested for abducting and killing her was a convicted sex offender who had lived nearby. Just a few days later, this identical series of events was repeated in Hillsborough County, Florida, in the case of Sarah Lunde; again, the killer was a registered offender. Lunde was thirteen, Lunsford just nine, precious lives devoured by rapacious evil.
Finally, in Marion County, Florida, with greater outrage and awareness being fueled by these grim events, residents posted signs around the neighborhood of Clovis Claxton’s home warning that he was a convicted child molester. He was a partially disabled man who had been jailed for forcing himself on the six-year-old daughter of his caretaker. A few days after expressing his distress that he was being humiliated in this way, Claxton committed suicide.
A debate has sprung up around the Claxton case. Was the communal response appropriate? Did it drive him to his death? The gentleman who initiated the campaign to publicize Claxton’s history showed no signs of contrition when he gave a reporter this quotable quote: “The bottom line is that yesterday there were 530 sex offenders in Marion County and today there are 529.”
“Megan’s Law” legislation signed by President Clinton in 1996 requires states to create registries available to the public with the names and last-known addresses of convicted molesters. It also allows them discretion in creating more direct notification procedures. Some states, or counties within states, go as far as sending a community-wide mailing to inform the citizenry when a sex offender buys or rents in their area.
(An anomaly born of this practice occurred a few months ago in Springfield, Arkansas, when Randall Collins bought a house in a development. After the sheriff notified neighbors that Collins was convicted of molesting young girls, the developer could no longer find customers for his homes. He asked Collins to sell his house back and Collins demanded a quarter-million-dollar payoff to leave. The case is being litigated.)
The constitutionality of Megan’s Law has been upheld in a number of court decisions. Yet voices are being raised attacking the poster campaign against Claxton as excessive or inappropriate. They argue that the public registry is readily available. In fact, the State of Florida has the entire list on its free website, conveniently divided by county. Why subject a person to public excoriation?
My own view is precisely the opposite. I have never been convinced that it is constitutional for the government to actively notify people about a person’s criminal history. Unless he is currently on probation or parole, there should be no governmental right to presume that one person poses more of a danger than another. The registry is legitimate, because it is simply a record of past crimes. Active notification for citizens to beware, projecting a hazard based on a past crime, strikes me as intrinsically illegitimate. Still, as a father, I’m not complaining too loudly about this misuse of government to help me better protect my children.
By contrast, when private individuals or organizations on their own initiative alert their friends and neighbors, that is the absolutely correct way for such exchanges of information to be transacted. This is the right of association practiced in its finest form. People pooling their energies and resources to help protect each other. We are touched when all the neighbors volunteer to join search parties scouring the woods for missing children; why not encourage their participation in a mutual help society to prevent such tragedy?
In closing, we should cite the praiseworthy model for such precaution instituted by the Chicago Jewish community, with all local Rabbis cooperating. Any convicted child molester (legally I must say “convicted,” but there is more than one way to achieve conviction) may not attend synagogue or any Jewish communal activity alone. He or she is assigned a monitor. If the person needs the bathroom, the monitor enters and waits outside the booth. No contact with any children is allowed. If the person violates any of these rules, they are barred entirely. If they try to leave town, every effort is made to discover their new address and notify the Jewish community in that city.
Today will be a good day, tomorrow even better. But keep a watchful eye. Terror still skulks in darkling corners.