March 17, 2004 6:11 AM

So when, exactly, is a debt finally paid?

Newspaper draws praise, rage after exposing offenders

How's this for a nightmare scenario? You're a convicted felon- a child molester, to be more specific. You've paid your debt to society, and now you're on the outside, trying to make a go of it. You've got a job, maybe even a wife or a girlfriend, and you seem to be putting your past behind you. Then, one quiet Sunday morning, you pick up a copy of your local paper off your front porch, when you realize that your quiet suburban life is about to come to a screeching halt.

There, on the front page, is a picture of all 63 registered sex offenders in the county, and your name, picture, and address are listed there in front of God and everybody. Before long, the harrassing phone calls start. Then you begin to notice that people are staring at you when you go to your neighborhood grocery store. Before long, parents are telling their children to stay away from you. You can see the fear and loathing in the eyes of those around you.

When you go into work the next morning, your boss calls you into his office and tells you that he is going to have to let you go. Yes, you are a hard worker, but it seems you are simply too much of a pariah to have around, and to continue to employ you would be bad for business.

This is no exercise in conjecture. This is, in a nutshell, what happened to several people in Muncie, IN, after the local paper this past Sunday published the pictures, names, and addresses of all area registered sex offenders. The publisher will tell you that, while it wasn't an easy deecision, he was simply trying to publicize Indiana's sex offender registry. I can't help but wonder if he thought through just what the impact of his action would be?

At what point do we allow people the opportunity, if not the right, to start over? Or do we subscribe to the maxim that once a child molester, always a child molester? Why not lock these people away and dispose of the key? Well, perhaps it's because of correctional systems are based on the theory that people can be put right, that they can learn how to become productive, contributing members of society. No one deserves to be branded with a scarlet letter and cast out from society until and unless they have demonstrated themselves to be unredeemably evil and wholly without merit as a human being.

I'm certainly not here to defend child abuse, or those who abuse children. It is a heinous crime that is every parent's nightmare. Recidivism is certainly a concern, as it is with any criminal who has served time and is released back into society. If we are to continue to delude ourselves into thinking that we are a welcoming, forgiving society without fixing this problem, we will all be poorer for it.

Offenders must be able to be released into society with the knowledge that, if they keep their nose clean, they will be eventually be allowed to become like everyone else. We are a country based on the concept of second chances. Must we now accept the notion that sex offenders are wholly undeserving of a second chance and indeed deserve to be permanently marginalized and treated as so much human refuse? If we continue to treat sex offenders as if they have been branded with a scarlet letter, then how far, really, have we come since Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his classic novel of intolerance and self-righteousness?

No one deserves to have their name, face, and address published on the front page of the Sunday paper. There are better, more effective, and less prejudicial ways to publicize Indiana's, or any other state's, sex offender registry. Did these men deserve to be harrassed, lose their jobs, and generally be treated as pariahs for a crime that they have already paid for? No, they should have every bit as much of an opportunity to prove their worth and make something of themselves as anyone else who has paid their debt to society. They deserve better; these are human being; not pieces of trash to be tossed out by the curb for someone else to dispose of.

If this is the way that we as a society are going to treated paroled sex offenders, why not just go back to putting them in stocks in the village square? Well, how about because we are better than this- if only we can learn to stop being ruled by abject fear.

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This page contains a single entry by Jack Cluth published on March 17, 2004 6:11 AM.

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