How America treats its sex offenders is deeply, morally complex

Shawna Baldwin always wanted to be a mother.
Shawna Baldwin always wanted to be a mother.
Image: Untouchable film still
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When she was an adolescent, Lauren Book was sexually, physically and emotionally tortured by her nanny for six years. Her abuser’s name will be forever included on a publicly available sex offender registry. So will the name of Shawna Baldwin, a hardworking and loving mother of two whose life has been blighted by a decision, when she was 19, to have consensual sex with an underage friend.

Due to a proliferation of anti-sex offender laws in recent decades, driven by a tough-on-crime political climate, Baldwin, and many of the other approximately 800,000 people on sex offender registries in the United States, face a lifetime of severe consequences. They will have difficulty finding and holding down a job or hanging on to their homes.

Originally seen as a tool for law enforcement, the registries have become a tool to legally discriminate against sex offenders. They include people convicted of horrific child molestation, rape and assault. But they also include young people who had sex with their underage partners, teenagers who sent “sexts” to each other, and a woman who as a 10-year-old girl pulled down a classmate’s pants. All will have to face society’s harsh, non-discerning judgement.

The two sides of this deeply, morally complex subject, represented by Lauren Book and Shawna Baldwin, are explored in “Untouchable,” a new documentary which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last week.

“I wanted the film to pose questions, not offer solutions,” emphasizes David Feige, the film’s writer and director. “I wanted to spark a dialogue.” The desire for deterrence and revenge has created draconian laws that leave many disenfranchised. On the other hand, who can blame the victims and their advocates for pursuing these laws?

This was a difficult dialogue to have, and the topic was a major obstacle for the documentary from the outset. Raising money to make the film was tough, Feige said. “It’s a subject that nobody wanted to touch.” Eventually, the film was supported by the Vital Projects Fund, an organization that also funded the Oscar-nominated documentary “Dirty Wars.”

Feige, who won the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Prize for the film at Tribeca, wanted to explore sex offender laws because he has always been drawn to thorny issues, those “all the way out on the boundaries.” Before he became a filmmaker and writer, he worked as a public defender in the Bronx for 15 years. “I watched as the laws that applied to many of my clients were expanded dramatically. They simply became broader and harsher,” he says. This happened all across the spectrum of criminal law, but at a particularly rapid pace for sex offenders.

Feige’s film focuses on Florida, where the father of Lauren Book, Ron, virtually singlehandedly created one of the harshest sex offender regimes in the US. The film opens on Ron, who, teary-eyed and in a Panama hat, talks about his daughter’s abuse. Much of the film centers around Ron’s unspeakable pain at his daughter’s suffering—and his missionto prevent any child from experiencing what Lauren had.

“Twenty years ago I would have referred to myself as a far-left liberal when it comes to the criminal justice system,” Book said during a Q&A session after a screening of the film. “When a crime hits your person or your family, your views change.”

Because of his political clout as a powerful and wealthy lobbyist, Book pushed Florida lawmakers to pass laws like a residency rule that bars Miami-Dade county sex offenders from living anywhere within a 2,500 foot radius of a place where children congregate. It effectively bans them from living in the city of Miami. Those who don’t have a home that meets requirements have to check in at 10 pm every night at an empty lot, and spend the night there, in tents, cars, or on the bare ground. One man interviewed by the filmmakers was once late for curfew by eight minutes. He had to return to prison for four years.

None of this shakes Book in his conviction to lock up all sex offenders and throw away the key. “He is almost radically transparent,” says Feige. He has a certain kind of “moral certitude” that made him a strong character to underpin the film.

The number of children affected by sexual abuse in America is staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42% of female rape victims were assaulted before they were eighteen. In a third of sexual abuse cases against minors, the perpetrators were also juveniles, according to the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth.

Baldwin was not a minor when she had sex with a fourteen-year-old boy. But she was barely out of adolescence herself. For more than a decade since she completed her jail term, she has had to receive treatment designed for sex offenders and undergo regular polygraph tests, all of which have racked up thousands of dollars in fees over the years. She lost a job as a newspaper reporter after a reader saw her name on the registry and complained.  She can’t travel freely or enter a public park to watch her children play.

There is a growing movement advocating for an easing of sex offender regulations, as described in a lengthy treatment of the subject by The New Yorker’s Sarah Stillman, but given the morally ambiguous nature of the subject, it’s an uphill road.

What “Untouchable” expertly shows is the power of an individual story, in this case Lauren Book’s, even in the face of contradictory statistics. Sex-offender laws are designed to prevent recidivism. Yet data show that the level of recidivism for sexual offenders is in the single digits, with just 3.5% of them being re-convicted for another sex crime within three years of their release. Nevertheless, these laws pass with wide support from both sides of the aisle. Stories like that of the Book family, along with their personal appeal (Lauren Book is a charismatic young woman who runs a foundation to help victims of abuse) render the statistics irrelevant.

“We as a nation don’t seem to have a great appetite for social science,” says Feige. “We do have a great appetite for compelling stories.”

“Untouchable” juxtaposes two compelling stories of sex offender laws: the black-and-white, retribution-driven vision of Ron Book, and the daily realities of those on sex offender registries, painted in multiple shades of gray.