Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

How Second Chances Help—in Business and in Sex Crime Policy

A September 10 National Public Radio story on chapter 11 bankruptcy made this startling claim: “The Great Recession taught us one thing. Bankruptcy may be an indicator of failure, but it can also be one of our economy’s secret weapons.”

The segment profiled Queen City Appliances of Charlotte, North Carolina. After launching in the 1950s, the company expanded from eight to seventeen stores. Then the Great Recession hit in 2008, and the owners declared bankruptcy. The list of companies that Queen City owed money to was 133 pages long in court documents—millions of dollars.

Bankruptcy allowed the firm to to get back on its feet by delaying repayment to its creditors. The ability to declare bankruptcy, concluded NPR’s reporter, is one reason the U.S. economy bounced back faster than others.

It’s easy to imagine how this might look from the point of view of the companies that Queen City Appliances owed money to—its victims. Many surely suffered severe hardship, and some no doubt went under because of the late payments. But that leniency—allowing business owners to try again—has larger benefits.

It’s an apt lesson for our criminal justice system. Increasingly, those involved in the prison reform movement are making headway in convincing lawmakers that second chances make sense for those who have served their time and are trying to improve. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch makes a compelling case for why second chances are just smart policy in this recent article.

With re-offense rates far higher among the general prison population than among those convicted of sex crimes, there’s even more reason to extend that logic to those on state sex offender registries. Many on these lists, including those judged low risk, are spending a lifetime on public registries. Research shows that the vast majority are first-time offenders. Many were convicted of non-contact offenses. Almost 40 percent were convicted as teens.

It’s worth considering whether building alternative systems of accountability for sex crimes could help prevent future offenses. For registrants today, good behavior after prison counts for little. Those trying to improve themselves are like the whitewater kayaker who’s pinned against a tree and fighting the current to free himself–being listed on a registry often makes getting a job, finding a place to live, and building a support system of friends and community involvements impossible. Registrants’ families suffer many types of collateral damage.

Preventing future crimes will require tearing down our current system so that registrants’ have an incentive to build good lives. Against all odds, many are trying to do just that.

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