Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

The Limits of Righteous Rage

It’s said you shouldn’t grocery-shop when you’re hungry because you’ll end up smashing your food budget. One lesson of the new documentary “Untouchable”—the first about the many impacts of U.S. sex crime laws–may be that you shouldn’t pass laws when you’re feeling vengeful.

“Untouchable” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week. If you watched it expecting clear answers, you may have been disappointed—it offers no policy prescriptions nor tells viewers what to think.

And the stars of the show are Ron and Lauren Book—he a bulldozer of a Florida lobbyist, she his daughter who now is running for state Senate.

More precisely, the show’s star is Ron Book’s white-hot, and understandable, fury. In 1996, Book and his wife hired a Honduran immigrant named Waldina Flores to be a nanny for then-11-year old Lauren. Flores had been background-checked and came highly recommended. Perhaps a year into her tenure, she began sexually abusing Lauren, though it would be more accurate to describe what she did as torture. The film doesn’t offer a complete picture, but at a minimum it included burning Lauren with cigarettes, defecating and urinating on her, inserting objects into her vagina, throwing her down the stairs. Lauren says the physical effects are such that she’s not sure she can ever have children.

Since then, Ron Book has declared war on those who commit sex crimes. He’s successfully lobbied for the most restrictive bans in the country on where those on sex registries can live and and the placement of a red “P” on the licenses of those convicted as “sexual predators” (a designation that captures a Florida man convicted for having sex with his girlfriend on a public beach).

Book makes no secret on camera about what’s driving him. “Hate, vengeance?” he says. “You bet. Do I want to keep that from ever happening to anyone ever again? … You bet. There are bad people out there.”

“I wake up every day thinking about it,” he says at another point of those convicted of sex crimes. “About how you’d just as soon like to line ‘em up and shoot ‘em.”

Later, we overhear him telling someone that when Waldina Flores gets out of prison in 2025 and is deported back to Honduras, he’ll be “on a plane right behind her. I know where her family lives. I’ve got people on my payroll who have been in Honduras for thirteen years.”

But public or private rage, no matter how justified, doesn’t often make for good law. Witness the foster-care panics that periodically erupt in states after the deaths of children at the hands of abusive parents being monitored by state child welfare agencies. The reaction is usually to give agencies more power to remove kids from their homes for placement in foster care. As the foster care system gets overwhelmed, kids start being placed in shelters, which child welfare experts agree has terrible impacts on their long-term emotional and social well-being. In many cases, the number of child abuse deaths actually rises.

The lesson? Creating smart public policy for the long term requires that legislators not be blinded by a public that’s howling for a quick fix.

But Ron Book evinces a determination to look the other way at what he’s created in Florida. He’s asked in the film about those residency restrictions. Numerous studies show they do nothing to cut sex crimes–in fact, they may do just the opposite. They’ve also produced homelessness rates among Florida registrants as high as 9 percent in some counties.

His response? “Much like I can’t necessarily produce statistics that say that our communities are safer as a result [of residency restrictions], I do have some level of common sense,” he says. “If you’re keeping them [registrants] away from kids, you’re reducing some of the risk. And this notion that we’ve rendered them homeless, that we’ve put them out on the street, that’s a bunch of bullshit. Their sexually deviant behavior is what put them there.”

Of course that’s only partly true. They’ve certainly served time because of their crimes. But Florida has a range of options for managing offenders once they’re released. Vermont, for example, runs a program called Circles of Support and Accountability that’s designed to reintegrate ex-offenders while monitoring their behavior. Vermont’s Circles program has cut recidivism rates among the small group of sex offenders judged to be at high risk to reoffend from 25 percent to 12 percent.

His daughter’s abuse also seems to blind Ron Book to something more important—that those guilty of sex crimes are individuals whose risk of re-offense differs by orders of magnitude, depending on their crimes and circumstances. After Thursday’s screening, the director invited Ron and Lauren Book on stage for a Q&A. (It’s a tribute to the film’s even-handedness that the Books attended). In one response, Ron Book asserted that even sex offender treatment providers acknowledge that sex offenders can’t be cured—their impulses can only be managed.

In fact the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, which represents those providers, says precisely the opposite—that ex-offenders have to be viewed individually, not as a group. “The vast majority of sex offenders who are punished for one sex crime do not commit another,” ATSA noted in a recent amicus brief.

The road to future atrocities is paved with tragedies—and victims. Take South Africa, where thousands of Dutch and Huguenot Boer colonists were herded into the world’s first concentration camps by their English captors during the Second Boer War in the late 1800s–28,000 Boers died in those camps. When they came to power, the Boers carried a tremendous sense of grievance and vulnerability and used it to justify the imposition of apartheid. More recently, the Serbs used the mass slaughters they suffered at the hands of Croats during World War II to rationalize the slaying of 200 Croat prisoners at Vukovar in 1991.

Of the lessons of “Untouchable,” one of the most important is this—using tragedies as a basis for public policy only creates more victims.

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