Though temporarily stalled, the legal system continues to harass Wendy Whitaker. She's a happily married Harlem woman threatened with a trip to jail or being kicked out of her home because, 12 years ago, she had consensual sexual contact with a fellow teenager.
Want to know why she's being harassed? Take a look in the mirror.
No, this isn't some it's-society's-fault treatise. This is a call for examining the cost of our communal bloodlust, eagerly abetted by pandering politicians seeking votes by appearing to act "tough on crime."
We've allowed those politicians to flex their muscles to the point that the effort has become wrongheaded and counter-productive. Whitaker is the poster-woman for that nonsensical approach to governing.
Should the law be tough on sex offenders? Absolutely. Citizens demand, expect and deserve protection from sexual predators. But true sexual predators - criminals who prey on children with whom they are not already acquainted - are the reason we warn our children about strangers during the day and lock our doors at night.
But they also are exceptionally rare. The overwhelming majority of sex crimes against children are committed by friends or family members of the victim.
Rather than closely examining ways to make citizens safer, acknowledging the relative scarcity of sexual predators and making punishment on those individuals far tougher, lawmakers instead have taken a one-size-fits-all approach to lump every offender into the same basket.
Thus, the sex offender registry and laws restricting those listed on it treat a paroled child rapist exactly the same as a probated teen offender like Whitaker. Both are subjected to harsh requirements for registration and limits on movement long after their actual punishments end.
None of that makes citizens any safer, but that's not the real point: It's all about making politicians look tough by forcing registered offenders back to jail or out of the state altogether. After all, who's going to speak up on behalf of sex offenders to argue against such restrictions?
How do we know harassment and exile are the intent of the law? The lawmakers who wrote them, including Harlem's own state Rep. Barry Fleming, admitted as much after the law passed.
Sure, these measures allow lawmakers to act like crime-fighters. But the cost is that minor offenders who are absolutely no further threat to society are treated the same as frightening predators. That undermines support of the law while overburdening law enforcement's ability to police it.
Fortunately, in Whitaker's case, she is being allowed to stay in her Harlem home while some of the new restrictions on registered sex offenders are challenged in court.
But the real fix shouldn't be in the hands of the courts. It should be in our hands as we demand lawmakers quit treating citizens like a bloodthirsty mob, and instead write commonsense law that keeps us all safer.
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