‘Untouchable’ Makes the Case for More Lenient Sex Offender Laws in America
A new documentary forwards the argument that our sex-offender laws are based largely on bogus stats and deserve to be reevaluated.
According to Untouchable, there’s a reason most Americans think sex offenders, and pedophiles in particular, are incurable, and thus destined to relapse: 2002’s McKune v. Lile, in which Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a plurality opinion that there was a “frightening and high risk of recidivism” for such predators, and that “the rate of recidivism of untreated offenders has been estimated to be as high as 80 percent.” That statement has since been used in numerous legal verdicts as well as to support countless pieces of state and local legislation aimed at curbing the rights of those found guilty of crimes against kids. In doing so, it’s become de facto common wisdom, almost universally accepted as a bedrock truth about individuals who possess child pornography or abuse (or have improper relations with) a minor.
The problem? The sole piece of evidence that led Justice Kennedy to make such a bold claim came from a 1986 Psychology Today article written by Ronald Longo, a counselor who ran a treatment program in an Oregon prison—and there was absolutely no statistical basis for his “80 percent” assertion. Moreover, Longo himself has since rejected that figure.
Untouchable, a documentary about sex offenders written, directed and produced by David Feige—which arrives on home video and VOD on January 15, after winning the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival—doesn’t drop that bombshell revelation until after its midway point, which in journalistic terms is akin to burying the lede. Nonetheless, Feige’s delay does little to neuter its impact, given that he spends the early portions of his non-fiction film incisively investigating multiple sides of the sex-offender issue. From victims and perpetrators, to activists who want to throw the convicted away and lose the key, it’s an eye-opening look at a thorny topic that, on the face of it, probably doesn’t strike many as very complex or controversial at all.
The reason the aforementioned McKune v. Lile decision is so stunning is that, by all accounts, actual sex-offender recidivism rates are low. In three-year studies done by Connecticut, Alaska, Nebraska, Maine, New York and California, recidivism figures are generally less than 4 percent—hardly a “frightening and high” figure. Furthermore, most conclude that there’s no correlation between recidivism rates and geographic proximity, meaning that laws passed to keep registered sex offenders from living close to schools, playgrounds, or other kid-centric areas generally have no impact; if wrongdoers are likely to seek prey nearby, it’s often in their own homes, or in churches or educational settings, where they know their intended targets. If Untouchable is to be believed—and its statistical case appears reasonably solid—then that’s a forceful repudiation of how we think about, and treat, sex offenders.
That’s not music to the ears of Ron Book, the powerhouse South Florida lobbyist who, compelled by his daughter Lauren’s horrifying sexual abuse at the hands of their nanny Waldina Flores (seen, hauntingly, in home movies), has made it his personal crusade to guarantee that his state has the strictest sex offender laws in the country. Those include mandatory 50-year minimum sentences for those convicted (and notations on their driver’s licenses), as well as ordinances that keep them from residing within 2,500 feet of any child-populated area. The result of the latter is that no sex offenders live in Miami Beach, and those that did before the law was passed have had to relocate—many to homeless tent encampments scattered around the metropolitan area. Book, a fiery gentleman whose eyes well up with teary rage when talking about the matter—understandably, given Lauren’s unthinkable ordeal—doesn’t care that he has no empirical evidence bolstering his measures, since he says that “some level of common sense” indicates that if you keep predators away from kids, you decrease risk.
Book’s zealous passion is moving, as are interviews with Lauren, who’s dedicated her life to making children safe from abuse. Untouchable doesn’t minimize their grief nor their contentions, and it’s hard to imagine that states with tougher laws aren’t more successful at combating the issue. Still, the film does complicate things via a series of snapshots of offenders: Shawna Baldwin, an Oklahoma mother of two whose teenage tryst with a younger boy landed her on the registry; Clyde Newton, an older man who was convicted of touching his stepdaughter; and 74-year-old John Cryar, a thrice-divorced individual caught with child pornography who admits that he’s lived his entire life as a “closet pedophile.”
As you can likely tell from those descriptions, these three individuals are not the same; Shawna belongs in a different category than the other (more deviant) two. Yet the American judicial system treats them as equals, restricting their travel, determining their residency, and slapping them with the same onerous label. Even sexting can now land teenagers on the registry, since nude photos of peers can technically be classified as child pornography. Through snapshots of this trio, as well as discussions with academic experts and Patty Wetterling, the mother of kidnapped-and-missing Jacob Wetterling, who helped create the registry in the 1990s with President Bill Clinton, Feige suggests that our sex-offender laws have shifted away from rehabilitation and toward punishment—which is a problem when those same laws cast a wide net, lumping in careless young adults with legitimately dangerous pedophiles.
This isn’t to say that Untouchable is pro-sexual predator; on the contrary, Feige’s documentary resounds with sympathy for Lauren and other victims, and gives stirring voice to her dad Ron’s justifiable rage and often persuasive arguments about how severe legislative measures help protect people from society’s worst elements. What it does, however, is raise the question of how we define sex offenders, and how we handle the challenge of treating and reintegrating them into society—since, as everyone agrees, they will get out of jail and move into our neighborhoods, walking our streets and frequenting our favorite places. The answers it has are far from concrete. Yet with a clarity and broad-mindedness that’s not always present in conversations regarding the matter (where any hint of being soft on crimes against kids is a death knell), it seeks to open up a dialogue about a hot-button subject that, it contends, is far less open-and-shut than most assume.