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Opinion: Redeeming the Worst

Poli Psy

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Roman Polanski
  • Roman Polanski

Last week in Switzerland, Roman Polanski walked free from the chalet where he’d been under house arrest for a year. Swiss authorities declined to extradite the filmmaker to the U.S. to face new indictments for the sexual assault of a 13-year-old in 1977. After taking her picture and plying her with Champagne and drugs, Polanski allegedly forced sex on the girl. A plea to lesser charges got him 90 days under locked psychiatric evaluation. After serving 42, on the eve of sentencing, he heard the judge planned to scrap the deal, and fled to Europe.

Last year, Los Angeles County prosecutors reopened the case. European artists and intellectuals rose in Polanski’s defense. A survivor of both the Holocaust and his wife’s murder, they said, he had suffered enough — and had repaid society with his prodigious contributions to the cinema. Back in the States, the victims’ rights community bellowed for Polanski’s head.

Meanwhile, another criminal has been gathering sympathy: David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, whose shooting spree in the 1970s left six New Yorkers dead and several wounded. He said he was following the orders of the demonic black Lab who lived next door. Since then, however, the murderer has found Jesus, and with him a circle of “admirers,” including many evangelicals. According to the New York Times, Berkowitz today enjoys a wide correspondence and participates in several ministries, including one that steers youth from Satanism.

Critics call both these men manipulators of the system. Polanski used his fortune and fame to escape deserved punishment, they say. Berkowitz was a con man on the Evil One’s team (he later claimed members of the cult to which he also belonged committed some of the murders), and he’s still a con man, now allegedly serving God. The cop who took his confession called Berkowitz’s jailhouse conversion a “charade” to get “access to the outside world.”

Of course, Polanski’s elite connections didn’t hurt him, and his wealth bought an armada of attorneys on both sides of the Atlantic.

As for Berkowitz, I wouldn’t put a little calculation past the guy. Even if he was genuinely seeking God, surely being born again into a media-rich, noisily proselytizing Christianity gleaned him a better bang for the Bible verse than returning to the Judaism of his birth would have done.

Still, money and manipulation play walk-on roles in these dramas.

What we’re watching is a morality play about the meanings of crime and punishment, a play whose antagonists have shaped the history of the American penal system.

On one side are those who seek retribution. To them, criminals, especially sex criminals, are unchangeable (or, in modern parlance, incurable), their sins indelible. The state’s duty, therefore, is not just to protect society but also to avenge the victims.

The other side believes, foremost, in rehabilitation — in moral language, redemption. To their supporters, Polanski has attained secular redemption through art; Berkowitz, divine redemption through worship.

Evidence overwhelmingly favors rehabilitation. An inmate who kicks drugs and gets a college degree behind bars is less likely to return to crime than one who’s had nothing to do in prison but deal pot and learn how to hack bank websites. A humanely treated prisoner, moreover, is less enraged when he gets out than one who’s been locked in solitary. The rehabilitation principle dominated American criminology for much of the 20th century.

But in the law-and-order 1980s, the punishers began to win. That was thanks to (among other things) racism, political pandering, privatized prisons that lobby for harsher statutes, and a victims’ rights movement that started out distrusting the police but soon married the punitive state, becoming its financial dependent and political helpmeet.

Lately, recessionary budgets have opened new space for the rehabilitators. Alternatives to incarceration, especially for nonviolent offenders, are back on the table.

Except for sex offenders. The endless sex panic has seen to that.

And so Polanski’s and Berkowitz’s cases are not what they were 33 years ago.

Polanski’s escape tipped the scales of justice hardly a whit. But it humiliated the district attorney. In the past, the prosecutor might have wiped the egg off his face and moved on.

Today, those 48 unserved days allowed current DA Steve Cooley to enlist the U.S. Department of Justice and foreign agents in an extensive international chase. The age of the victim gave him the public support to spend tax dollars on a personal vendetta (and boost his run for state attorney general). “If [Polanski] admitted sleeping with a child, then he should be in prison for the rest of his life,” a typical commenter wrote on a news blog. “Sleeping with” a 13-year-old and sexually assaulting her have now melded both in statute and in public discourse. With the question of her consent deemed irrelevant, the now-adult victim’s beseechings that the prosecutor drop the case could be ignored.

Is there no statute of limitations? Not for the sexual abuse of a minor. Moreover, federal law now requires sex-offender registries to list even people who completed their sentences decades ago, according to the laws of decades ago. The Constitution prohibits ex post facto — after the fact — punishment, but federal courts have thrown that objection out. The registries are “regulatory, not punitive” measures, judges have ruled, even though registrants are condemned to homelessness, unemployment, civic disenfranchisement, social stigma and violence.

The effort to punish Polanski again, and harder, is not uncommon, either. Minor registration infractions — say, failure to report the purchase of a car — can send a sex offender back to prison for as long as his original sentence.

I might add that if the photos Polanski took of that 13-year-old ended up online, a person who downloaded them could get more prison time than Berkowitz got for serial murder.

And what of Berkowitz? He has been interviewed warmly on Focus on the Family radio. A testimonial tract about his life and faith is distributed at rescue missions and motorcycle rallies. A Texas postal worker runs a website for him, called Arise and Shine, and promotes his book, Son of Hope, on it.

Don’t get me wrong. Rehabilition is a good thing. The man went on a homicidal rampage under orders from a dog. He needed treatment, not punishment.

But it is one of numerous ironies of the crime and sex panics that some of those responsible for them are now among the only ones able to find good in people written off as evil.

I spent a recent weekend with both these groups of people — ex-sex offenders, along with their families and allies, at the national convention of an extraordinary national movement, gathered under the umbrella of RSOL, or Reform Sex Offender Laws.

Meeting in the community room of a Washington, D.C., church, the group looked more like a church convention than a civil-rights organization. They were mostly white and middle or working class. Few had ever been involved in politics — until a teenage child was arrested for sex with a 15-year-old, or a brother chatted with a federal agent posing as a minor online. As a group, they are temperamentally libertarian. Yet, from California to Maine, they are writing op-eds, attending community forums, and lobbying to shave away at the massive legal and social iceberg that freezes former offenders out of American life.

According to one of their pamphlets, RSOL members are “average, liberty-loving Americans.” As Americans, they cherish the second chance as a birthright.

These folks are not “sex radicals.” They read sexual nonconformity as pathology and trust in cure. Like AA members, the offenders speak of themselves as “in recovery.” Many are devout Christians; prayer accompanies their politicking. They believe in sin — and in redemption.

The inmates whose crimes had real victims say they feel remorse, have learned empathy and tried to make amends. I was moved by the respect and compassion they show one another.

Yet even these folks can slip into the punitive and paranoid logic of modern sex-offender law. Lobbying their legislatures, some who started out demanding the abolition of the registries as cruel and unusual, and ineffective in protecting the public, now accept registry of “the worst of the worst.” They push to remove only the “low-risk” offenders, such as consensual teen lovers and public urinators, who may compose the majority of the 700,000 registered.

This tactic leaves the question unanswered: Who is the worst of the worst?

Late on Sunday, during an open-mic session, the group got an answer.

“I don’t feel welcome here,” began a tense, middle-aged man named Martin. “You’re all for the ‘innocent’ accused, the falsely accused. But ‘the worst of the worst’ — you’ll leave them to twist in the wind.” He paused, breathing. “Let me tell you who I am.” Then Martin described his crimes: He held up convenience stores and, after robbing the cash register, would make a woman perform fellatio on him at gunpoint. “That’s me. The worst of the worst,” he said.

“But I sat in my cell for 20 years trying to figure out what happened, trying to be a different man,” and in the 13 years since his release, he’s been “crime free,” he continued. “I paid my debt. When do I get to stop paying?”

First there was silence. Then applause. We looked at each other, as if to ask: Who among us has not sinned? Somebody whispered, “Amen.”

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