Moral panic

In the lobby
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  May 23, 2007

Ever wonder why legislators suddenly show a huge interest in a subject?

Many of this year’s large stack of bills aimed at sex offenders are “media driven,” says Stan Gerzofsky, the Brunswick Democrat who is House chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Citing Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly and other TV and radio figures who “are making a living off” whipping up fears about sexual predators, Gerzofsky claims, “This is an absolute classic example of moral panic,” adding: “The number of victims hasn’t gone up; it’s gone down nationally. . . . In Maine, the DAs [district attorneys] say the numbers are dropping.”

Sociologists use the term “moral panic” to describe a fearful, usually-media-driven public reaction to what is seen as a menacing group. It is not based on statistical facts but, often, on a dramatic story.

O’Reilly, a popular right-wing talk-show host, last year called Maine a “child-predator-friendly” state because, in his view, the Legislature hadn’t adopted strict-enough laws dealing with sex offenders. He was promoting “Jessica’s Law,” which would impose mandatory 25-year prison sentences for sexual abusers of children under 12. Another Fox program, America’s Most Wanted, also has pushed Jessica’s Law, which is named after a Florida girl raped and killed by a previously convicted sex abuser.

Last session, Maine lawmakers rejected Jessica’s Law, passing instead a measure stiffening sentencing guidelines for judges considering child sex-abuse cases.

This year Jessica’s Law is back (LD 46), along with at least 27 other bills dealing with sex offenders. Some would limit where those who have served their sentences could live, some would toughen sentences, and others would modify the online sex-offender registry.

Local news media also have given attention to sex offenders, including to one released from prison who abducted and raped a 14-year-old girl in Augusta, and to ex-convicts whose residence in a community has been hotly contested.

William Diamond, the Criminal Justice Committee’s Senate chairman, also a Democrat, believes the large number of bills resulted after “constituents contacted legislators.”

Gerzofsky would prefer an approach to sex offenders that emphasized treatment over residency restrictions: “There’s a very low recidivism rate if they’re getting treatment.” Recidivism means a relapse into crime. Tight residence restrictions, he believes, may force dangerous sex offenders underground, where they will escape monitoring and treatment.

Gerzofsky’s committee was slated to discuss a pile of sex-crime-related bills May 23. So far this session, it has taken a non-panicked approach, killing off many bills, including one that would have criminalized going into an “opposite-gender” public toilet. But the committee may blend some rejected bills’ ideas into a committee-developed bill.

It still has to address proposals to change the sex-offender registry to help prevent such tragedies as the Easter murder last year of two Maine men who were targeted because they were listed on it.

Shipping out prisoners less likely
Governor John Baldacci has backed off from his threat to ship 125 prisoners to a corporate lockup in Oklahoma to relieve the state prison system’s overcrowding. (See “Prisoners as commodities,” by Lance Tapley, April 27.)

He is supporting the central recommendations made on May 18 to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee by a joint Appropriations and Criminal Justice subcommittee.

The group’s main proposals, which received a promising reception by Appropriations, would:

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