Cross-posted California Majority Report.
In 2005, Genarlow Wilson was sentenced to ten years in prison by a Georgia jury for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl. Wilson was only 17 when this “crime” was committed. Last week, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the case, deciding in a 4-3 decision that the conviction “constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.”
It would be easy for those of us in blue state California to look at this case from afar and see yet another miscarariage of Southern justice, but that would be a mistake. There is a lesson here for California, and it’s a lesson we’ll almost certainly ignore.
Before his conviction, Wilson was repeatedly offered plea deals that might have allowed him to avoid prison, but he refused because a plea would have forced him to register as a sex offender. “It might’ve been lesser time, but then again, I would have nowhere to go because I would have no home,” Wilson explained. “I wouldn’t be able to stay with my mother because I have a little sister. You know, when you’re a sex offender you can’t be around kids. Basically, I can’t even have kids myself, you know, so what is the point of life?”
Wilson, an Ivy League-recruited honor student who was homecoming king and one of his school’s best track and football athletes, lost two years of his life because of an inflexible sex offender registry that didn’t see many differences between sex crimes. Under Georgia law, Wilson was guilty of “aggravated child molestation.” No room for explanation. No room for context. Certainly no room for sympathy. So on the registry he goes.
To see why this matters to California, continue over the flip…
California isn’t all that different. To be registered as a sex offender in California is to be branded an undesirable for life. Our state’s Megan’s Law database includes many sex offenders of the Genarlow Wilson variety. People convicted of public urination, nude sunbathing, and mooning have had their names tarnished for life by being included in the same database as serial rapists and violent child molesters. And under last year’s unworkable Proposition 83, sex offenders were barred from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park. As the San Francisco Chronicle explained:
“Prop. 83 is a terrible initiative that does not stand up to close scrutiny. One of its most obvious flaws is the ban on sex offenders living within 2,000 feet of any school or park. What this will mean is that most urban areas in California will be placed off limits to sex offenders. They will instead be forced into living in rural areas — an unfair burden to those communities and a barrier for those ex-offenders who are making an effort to find employment and straighten out their lives. In addition, understaffed law enforcement and social service agencies in remote parts of the state might not have the resources to adequately monitor these individuals. Public safety may be endangered rather than enhanced.”
Under Prop 83, which passed by an overwhelming 70.5-29.5 margin, the sex offenders with a high likelihood of repeat offense are now barred from the cities most capable of dealing with them, while everyday folks who make the stupid decision to piss on a tree one day are forced to go along for the ride. Oh, and regardless of their offense, they’re all forced to wear ankle monitoring bracelets for life — on the public dime of course.
Why is the California electorate so afraid of drunken frat boys who moon their chancellor? Because voters in California all too frequently reflexively support anything labeled “tough on crime,” even if it actually puts us at greater risk. Because any crime bill cravenly claimed to be for the children is like a scalding iron that none of the state’s more sensible politicians want to touch. Because anyone who dares approach public safety with an air of rationality is branded “pro-criminal” by those who would rather posture than make us safer. And because some of our state’s most powerful lobbying groups directly benefit from keeping more people in prison and under close scrutiny.
And there’s no reason to think any of this will change. It will always be easier to score cheap political points through scare tactics and code words than to actually work on the thankless task of creating real solutions to our crime problems, and the victims of the system are too disparate, too disorganized, and frequently too poor to have a voice at all.
So while we celebrate Genarlow Wilson’s release, and as we scorn the flaws of his state’s justice system, let’s not forget that California — us, the voters — have created our own generation of Genarlows, deprived of the freedoms we take for granted because we would rather be “tough on crime” than smart on crime.