CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

03.04.16 8:40 PM ET

Alabama Lawmaker Wants Sex Offenders To Pay For Their Own Castration

Only one small problem—Alabama has wrongfully convicted at least nine men of the kind of sex offenses that would qualify for this lawmaker’s bill.

An Alabama lawmaker known for parading around on a giant gun-shaped barbecue grill has once again taken up his pet project: the surgical castration of sex offenders.

“This bill would provide that any person over the age of 21 years who is convicted of certain sex offenses against a child 12 years of age or younger would be surgically castrated before his or her release from the custody of the Department of Corrections,” HB 365 reads. “This bill would require that the cost of the procedure be paid by the adult criminal sex offender.”

The point of such a bill is clear. The sexual abuse of a young child is horrific, and who wouldn’t want to prevent a repeated attack?

But castration—whether by surgically removing a man’s testicles or chemically diminishing his libido with injections of synthetic female hormone Depo-Provera—has never been proven as an effective means to curb such violent sexual abuse. Despite popular belief, neither forms of castration are guaranteed to cause impotence. Up to 10 percent of surgically castrated men are able to regain sexual function after the procedure.

What’s more, sexual abuse experts say a one-cut-fixes-all strategy does nothing to address the underlying disorder that leads an abuser to commit such a heinous crime. Still, at least seven states have some law on the books for the chemical castration of sex offenders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“It’s naive to think this is a panacea,” Dr. Fred Berlin, founder of The Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic, told The Washington Post decades ago, a position he has maintained every subsequent time a reporter has called asking for his opinion on the matter. Not only is it wrong to use a medical treatment as punishment, he has said, but there’s no reason to believe it will have the intended effect.

And then there’s the problem of wrongful convictions, a thing Alabama knows a bit about.

Since 1989, 476 people wrongfully convicted of sexual assault or child sex abuse have been exonerated across the U.S., according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project run by the University of Michigan. Nine of those have come from Alabama.

Antonio Williams spent over four years in an Alabama prison serving a life sentence for the rape of a 7-year-old girl, who was interviewed by investigators after it was discovered she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease. Williams was vindicated in 2011 after the girl told a social worker a different man—not Williams—had raped her, but threatened to hurt her if she said anything.

In 2006, 24-year-old Birmingham man Zachary Noah Smith denied, but was ultimately convicted of, sexually molesting his 3-year-old daughter. Six years later, his daughter came forward and told a counselor that no abuse had occurred, but that she had been pressured to lie by her great-grandmother. Smith’s conviction was reversed by a new trial.

Convictions can be reversed, surgical castration cannot.

Luckily, Hurst’s castration bill is unlikely to see the light of day, as similar bills proposed in previous sessions died in committee.

In 2013, Hurst told a local paper, The Anniston Star, “I’ll introduce it every year until it gets passed.”

An email requesting comment was not returned and no one answered Hurst’s phone.

Hurst was elected to Alabama’s House of Representatives in 1998 as a Democrat (he switched parties in 2010). He is also the owner of a Talladega pawn and gun shop, and has sponsored legislation including a successful “Stand Your Ground” bill in 2006 that codified a gun owner’s right to shoot almost anyone, and a bill that would require public school students to read the Congressional Record (with the prayer) for 15 minutes each day.