Thursday, March 23, 2006

Safe Kids; Safer Lawmakers

In all of public policy, few sights are as craven and pathetic as a legislature in a self-righteous lather over child molesters. Lawmakers desperate to appear relevant propose critic-proof measures to get tough against the most reviled population of humans on the planet and pretend the effort shows courage and vision.

In the Columbus Dispatch, the latest spectacle is on display. Yesterday lawmakers heard the genuinely tragic story of a nine-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed by a neighbor with a prior sex offense. The proposal – mandatory minimum of 15 years for gross sexual imposition on a child twelve or under.

The CD article quotes prosecutors who make a very real case against the draconian mandatory minimum proposal – you guarantee more defendants going to trial, more children required to testify and more defendants being acquitted. As a makeweight I would also point out that not every GSI defendant is sufficiently dangerous to justify the state paying his room and board for fifteen years. After all, this is being justified base on one singularly disturbing case from another state. The rate for recidivism for child sex criminals is particularly high, but the number that commits that sort of horror is exceedingly small.

I suppose someone could make an appeal to justice on that same basis, though I have difficulty caring about the fortunes of someone who fondles children.

What’s really sad about all this is how simple – and simpleminded – it all is. The legislature could do things that really help kids. They could finally fully fund Betty Montgomery’s network of crime labs – the wait time for DNA analysis is pushing a year thanks to understaffing in the labs. They could fund multidisciplinary child advocacy centers. They could guarantee counseling to every child victim. They don’t because such programs would require spending money, and therefore making hard choices.

Instead, they propose to radically lengthen prison terms, which will cost more, but the effect will be to pressure the parole board to cut prisoners loose even more than is now the case. And you know the lawmakers who vote for this will tout their toughness this fall. Times like this I have to ask myself why I’m a policy junkie.