Feels: The Sex Offender’s Scarlet Letter Is An Unjust Law

By Dalton Phillips

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There is no question that a sex offense is a truly heinous crime. But the fear they evoke, though somewhat justified, causes a disproportionate punishment that in many ways goes far beyond anything else our criminal justice system doles out.


On Monday, Congress passed a bill known as “International Megan’s Law”, titled after the young victim of a sex crime. The bill calls for “advanced notification” of a sex offender’s travel plans, as well as a “unique identifier” on all passports issued to “covered sex offenders”. The identifier is a “visual designation affixed to a conspicuous location on the passport indicating that the individual is a covered sex offender.” A “covered sex offender” is a person previously convicted, at any point in his or her life, for a sex offense involving a minor.


This unjust law only furthers the disparity between punishment and crime seen with the treatment of sex offenders, joining an ever-expanding list of legislation that targets those attempting to rejoin society after serving due time. Critics were quick to dub the new bill as a kind of “Scarlet Letter,” a badge of shame which ostracizes a person as a second-class citizen.

In a Washington Post op-ed, David Post was quick to point out the draconian nature of such a punishment, writing:

“There is something truly odious — “Scarlet Letter”-esque, one might say — about requiring people to bear, for their entire lives, this conspicuous badge of dishonor, whatever their prior crime (for which they have already been duly punished) may have been.”

The quote from the Post really emphasizes what makes this, as well as the now-infamous sex-offender registry, truly unbalanced measures. There is no question that the perpetrators of these crimes ought to be punished, and rightfully so. And like a criminal convicted of assault or murder, sex offenders spend a great deal of time behind bars, serving out their sentence. However, where the law differs so greatly in the treatment of a sex offender versus another class of criminal is in the continuation of harsh restrictions even upon release.


There is a certain justice to imprisonment, wherein those who violate laws are removed from a community until such a time they are seen fit to rejoin the outside world. Even murderers, after carrying out a sentence, are given a second opportunity at life.

Yet in the case of sex offenders, mandatory registries and bills like “Megan’s Law” affect nearly every aspect of waking life, even after they’ve served their sentence. These laws dictate and severely inhibit job opportunities, living requirements, even the ability travel. In short, the rehabilitation process which society offers ex-cons is utterly ignored for a particular subset. That group is forced to live with their mistake long after others have put it behind them. The idea that a criminal might make amends through incarceration is thrown out in the sole case of sex offenders.


Furthermore, imposing additional punishments on a blanket list means that by definition, you have minor offenders receiving the same treatment as the grotesque abusers. In many states the sex offenders registry includes people who were arrested for streaking, mooning or urinating near a school or playground. And by lumping those individuals onto the same list as serial child molesters and the like, you ensure an even further-disproportionate punishment to already serious penalties.

Today, Sex offenders remain one of the few types of criminal who have little to no chance of ever moving past the crime committed. Yet the government will never vote to undo these actions for fear of seeming sympathetic to our nation’s most hated minority group. Likewise, the media does it’s best to avoid encroaching on such subjects, due to the harsh backlash it would surely receive. No one wants to acknowledge that the system in place is broken and inherently unjust. And without the support of the public, the media or the government, an eighteen year old who slept with his seventeen year old girlfriend somewhere, finds himself marked, both literally and figuratively, for the majority of his remaining life.


Sexual offenses are some of society’s most hated crimes. But an element of disgust exists to a degree rarely seen when discussing perpetrators of said acts, even when compared to something as equally appalling as rape. Consequently, the media does its best to avoid the appearance of empathy or advocation with respect to this class of criminal, resulting in a topic sparsely covered, if at all, at the expense of the rights of U.S citizens.

Though it is fair to despise them, the laws currently in place go far beyond due process, and far beyond anything else the justice system hands down. And try as we might to avoid it, unbalanced justice isn’t really justice at all.