Just who is a sex offender?
A guy you might be scared to meet, Galen Baughman, gave a talk at a TEDx event in New York City recently. TED is known for introducing new speakers with new ideas on everything from tech to society to teaching. But Baughman was the first presenter who happens to be on the registry.
The sex offender registry, that is. His crime?
He had sex with a teen when he was a teen. He was 19; his boyfriend, 14. They had sex once. It was consensual. The younger teen did not want to prosecute, but his parents did.
Had Baughman and his boyfriend slept together in another country — Canada, for instance — it would not have been considered a criminal act at all. But here Baughman’s crime resulted in a prison sentence.
He served nine years. Four and a half of those were in solitary.
Just when he was about to be set free, well, that’s what Baughman had come to this TEDx event at the Borough of Manhattan Community College to talk about. “Three and a half years ago,” the 32-year-old told the audience, “I was sitting alone in a cell in Arlington, Virginia, waiting for a trial that would determine whether I would spend the rest of my life in prison.”
You see, Baughman had originally been handed a 61/2-year sentence. But when he was about to be released, the authorities informed him that they considered him a violent sexual predator too dangerous to let go. It turns out, the state can lock up people it deems violent predators indefinitely. The legal term for this is civil commitment.
How does the state get away with keeping some people for years — sometimes decades — after their release dates?
It plays on the public’s fear of sex offenders, explained Baughman, now a Soros Justice fellow. Politicians score points by keeping sex offenders locked up. It sounds so good. It’s for the sake of our children!
The problem is that once a person gets the label “sex offender,” the public ceases to consider that person a human. In most people’s minds, a sex offender is a monster raring to rape little kids. The fact that the Department of Justice reports that sex offenders actually have the lowest recidivism rate of any criminals other than murderers is not well-known.
Even less known is this: “The label ‘sex offender’ is a made-up category,” Baughman said. You can get labeled a sex offender for raping a toddler — or for sleeping with your freshman girlfriend when you’re a senior.
Baughman is one of only a handful of people to have ever won a jury trial under an indefinite detention law.
Today more than 5,000 Americans sit in cells after their release dates simply because we have labeled them “sex offenders.”
Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids.”