Friday, September 16, 2011

Chrysanthi S. Leon's "Sex Fiends, Perverts and Pedophiles"

Chrysanthi S. Leon is assistant professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware and is a research fellow at the Legal Research Institute at the Boalt Hall School of Law. She is an interdisciplinary scholar in the area of penology, law and society.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Sex Fiends, Perverts and Pedophiles: Understanding Sex Crime Policy in America, and reported the following:
Page 99 provides one the key insights gained from my mixed methods research.
In addition to numerically overshadowing civil commitment, the criminal justice system was also a necessary precondition to the civil system, because arrest and referral through the criminal courts almost always preceded civil commitment. During this period, civil commitment was a form of diversion rather than a separate system. This meant that criminal prosecutors had to be invested in such diversion for some sex offenders; that is, in differentiating among offenders as deserving probation, commitment, or prison. (Leon, Sex Fiends, Perverts and Pedophile: Understanding Sex Crime Policy in America, 2011, p. 99)
Changing ideas about who sex offenders are, and what will work to stop them reflects and reinforces ideas and practices around gender, violence, and the protection of vulnerable groups. The quote taken above is from the chapter which describes how sex offender punishment worked in California at mid-century. Archival and criminal justice data provide a window into how rehabilitative claims and frames informed sex offender policies in the decades prior to the Sexually Violent Predator civil commitment laws passed in the 1990s.

Civil commitment in the past often provided an easier “out” for people prosecuted for sex crimes that many didn’t actually view as serious threats; these were often white, professional men. Instead of prison time, they would be hospitalized for an average of two years. But hospitalization wasn’t always the lesser punishment. In fact, Mexican Americans were more likely to be referred to the hospital for misdemeanors, crimes which would have earned them very little prison time if any at all. This is part of the evidence for the “whitewashing” of sexual offending: The criminal justice and commitment systems reflect assumptions about force, harm, and danger, filtered through the lenses of race and class by decision makers at the front end.

Most of the book focuses more on individual stories of sex crime and punishment, showing how our ideas about who the dangerous offenders are limits our ability to address real sexual violence. Altogether, the book illustrates the pitfalls of differentiation when left unguided and unchallenged.
Learn more about Sex Fiends, Perverts, and Pedophiles at the NYU Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue