The intersection of civil rights and child protection

Prostasia is a child protection organization that seeks to harmonize the tension that is often perceived between effective public policy and constitutional rights. When informed by evidence, the tension between good policy and constitutional rights is largely a false one: sound public policy aimed at preventing sexual harms can also ensure that we don’t sacrifice our freedoms in the process.

Over the last few decades, we—particularly in America—have increasingly staked out what we take to be effective child protection policy as a trade on civil rights. The paradigmatic example of this bargain are sexual offense registries. What began as relatively simple listings of persons convicted of sexual offenses soon morphed into something much closer to prisons without bars for the nearly million people on them in the United States.

Understandable anger and revulsion has produced policies such as residence restrictions, travel and communication bans, indefinite periods of “civil” detention, and hyper-technical rules for compliance, which are now commonplace for people who have long ago exited the criminal justice system. In a series of court decisions, a “sex offender” exception to the constitution has been carved out, and while perhaps most would be fine trading on the rights of unpopular groups of people if it made our families safer, evidence indicates that this not what our bargain has earned us. As understandable as anger and revulsion are, they make for poor tools with which to develop sound public policy.

Worse than ineffective, evidence suggests our policies actually create crime: both by making it nearly impossible for people who have served their sentences to reintegrate into the community, and by operating from a badly flawed understanding of how sexual abuse and violence happens in our society. For example, while such laws operate on the premise that sexual violence is attributable to predators whom we only need to isolate and shun, 95% of all sex crimes reported to law enforcement is committed by first-time offenders. Even assuming the effectiveness of law and policy targeting erstwhile repeat offenders, it does nothing to address the vast bulk of sexual violence in our society. Because of this, as others have argued, our current approach facilitates sexual abuse and gendered violence in our society. While schools, parks, and playgrounds have been “made safe” from the stranger lurking in the bushes, this is not how the vast majority of abuse happens. Rather, it takes place within the confines of relationships, workplaces, schools, and in the home. The horrific and rare exceptions have written the rules on prevention, much to everyone’s detriment.

To that end, it would make sense to have a civil rights advocate, such as myself, on the Advisory Council of Prostasia.

I have many identities when it comes to the topic of sexual abuse prevention, crime and punishment, and civil rights, however.

I was also raped when I was eight years old. As a victim, nothing that I write is intended to minimize the harm that child sexual abuse causes, nor to insinuate that people should not be held accountable for their crimes.

Accountability for one’s crimes is an essential feature of anything that could be called justice, and one which our systems often lack. Many sex crimes are not reported, and of those that are, police quite often fail to properly investigate them, essentially acting as gate-keepers, and the state manages to parlay these relatively basic investigative failures into granting themselves extraordinary powers (the tragic case of Jacob Wetterling, and the development of the Jacob Wetterling act is but one high-profile example).

I say that accountability is important not just as a victim, but also as someone who was held accountable for his own crime.

I spent my teenaged years in the grips of an unhealthy relationship with internet porn, which eventually came to include unlawful images of minors. In 2006, when I was 22, I was arrested, and pled guilty the following year. Nothing I write, here or elsewhere, is intended to minimize the impact of my actions, or my responsibility for them. In many different respects, my arrest saved my life.

While the details of my story are largely beyond the scope of this piece, I have written about it elsewhere. I also did a public AMA session on Reddit about my experiences.

Modern society is one in which few lives are unaffected by sexual harms, in one form or another. This fact underscores the importance of the development of effective law and policy, as opposed to those which boast only surface appeal.

One such policy has been to functionally prohibit people deem dangerous from online communication—though research done into the question indicates that 96% of online solicitation targeting minors is attributable to people without prior offenses, indicating that these policies do little to protect anyone.

Worse still, their lack of effectiveness is purchased by way of undermining of human and civil rights. Despite these bans having been declared constitutionally infirm, a brave new world awaits us where decisions about who can gain admittance to the modern public square are made not in courtrooms, but boardrooms that are unconstrained by First Amendment principles. Facebook’s policy (and the policy of choice for many online platforms), for example, is a blanket ban on anyone convicted of a sex offense—the Supreme Court’s decision in Packingham be damned. Very few organizations are aware, much less concerned, about the difficult questions that effectively banning unpopular groups of people from online communication raise—Prostasia is amongst the few that are. While adopting out-of-sight-out-of-mind policies may be palatable, they undermine both safety and individual liberty.

In my time working at the intersection of civil rights and policy development, I have had occasion to collaborate with a vast array of stakeholders in this mission: victim rights advocates, legislators, treatment providers, victims, formerly justice-involved individuals, attorneys, and others. Far from being adversaries, and paradoxical as it may seem, we all want the same things: to build a safer, more just society.

This is the path that is reflected in Prostasia’s mission—one which sacrifices neither the mission of child protection, nor human and civil rights. Far from being strangers, these goals can and should complement one another in the development of sound, evidence-based policy aimed at the prevention sexual harms before they occur. This is a core aspect of Prostasia’s mission, and why I am honored to sit on its Advisory Council.

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