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Who Watches The Watchmen?

May 4th, 2005

While driving home last night, I happened to hear a segment of the Canadian radio show As It Happens regarding Florida’s recent passage of the so-called Jessica Lunsford Act. Lunsford was a nine-year-old girl raped and killed by a previously-convicted sex offender, and the act, unanimously passed by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by Governor Jeb Bush, toughens penalties for sexual predators and increases monitoring of those who have been released after serving their time. Seems reasonable enough, though it is troubling that the law assumes that prison time will have done little to curb their future appetites.

During the interview segment, Florida State Representative Charles Dean, a sponsor of the act, discussed how certain offenders would be fitted with Global Positioning System devices for the rest of their lives. Not merely an anklet or bracelet: the law specifies that the latest, updated technology be employed. That may soon include subcutaneously implanted chips. Dean said, “We know it works on our dogs. My dog is registered that way; he’s got a chip in his neck.”

When asked by the interviewer whether anyone had raised concerns about the law being too tough, and not taking into account the possibility of rehabilitation, Dean replied, “I wouldn’t be opposed to any type of rehabilitative process that we have there, however, that doesn’t compensate for the fact that they’re an offender.” Citing a high rate of recidivism, he added, “We expect something bad to happen, and the way it doesn’t happen is for us to monitor them appropriately and properly.” Again, fair enough.

What caught my attention was the concept of permanently-implanted location devices–the bogeyman of paranoid schizophrenics and survivalists alike–and I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been more attention to this point. Perhaps that’s due to the emotion involved: these are heinous crimes, perceived as doubly so due to the youth of the victims. I’m willing to concede the possibility that the nature of convicted pedophiles and the relative accessibility of vulnerable children may suggest that constant monitoring is entirely appropriate.

Still, the thought of a government tagging and tracking citizens in perpetuity disturbs me. Sure, no one is going to argue for the rights of convicted sexual offenders; even the ACLU has nothing about the Lunsford Act on its website. But it strikes me as a potential slippery slope. Once we decide it’s okay, even desirable, to “brand” certain people with electronic Scarlet Letters, why not extend the practice to other classes of criminals? Child molestation isn’t the only crime with a high rate of recidivism.

Of course, there’s little to fear for law-abiding members of a society in which no one ever goes to prison for a crime they didn’t commit and the government never persecutes anyone based on their ideology.

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