And what should we do with our monsters?
That we have no answer to that question, that we lack consensus on what to do with sexual predators, is evident from the range of our responses to their crimes. From the Catholic church shielding pederastic priests to the profusion of databases that let you check if your neighbor is a sex offender, to the pseudo celebrity enjoyed by Mary Kay Letourneau when she married her former student Vili Fualaau, whom she raped when he was 12 and she was 34, our responses scream irresolution.
And then, there is Miami, which inadvertently created a shanty town of sex offenders with an overly-broad law forbidding all of them — from the lowly peeping Tom to the psychotic rapist — from living within 2,500 feet of places where children gather.
We don't know what to do with our monsters. But I submit that we owe it to Jaycee Dugard to learn.
We have all been duly appalled by her story, of course: she was a sun-kissed 11 year old from South Lake Tahoe who was snatched in 1991 before her stepfather's horrified eyes. She was rescued last week, a 29-year-old woman who has spent the intervening 18 years living in a shabby warren of tents, tarps and sheds in the back yard of her captors, registered sex offender Phillip Garrido and his wife, Nancy.
Maybe you think the most horrific part of this story is that Dugard allegedly bore two children by Garrido, the first born when she was about 14. Maybe you think it's that authorities could have rescued her three years ago — neighbors called 911 to report children living in the back yard — but failed to do so. Maybe you think it's the 18 years of life and education (Garrido did not allow her to go to school) she lost, irretrievably. Maybe you think it is her psychological ruination.
All that is heart-tearing, I agree. But what gets me is that Garrido should never have been on the street in the first place. When he allegedly took Dugard, Garrido was on parole for the 1976 rape and kidnapping of a young woman. For this, he was given a 50-year federal sentence and — the crime crossed state lines — a life sentence in Nevada.
He got out after 11 years.
Ordinarily, I am not much for mandatory minimum sentencing and other "tough on crime" measures politicians pass when they want to look as if they are doing something. Such laws have a tendency to remove human judgment (and common sense) from the equation and to produce as many miscarriages of justice as justice itself.
I make an exception for sexual predators who prey on children. The crime is viscerally repulsive, yes; the idea of some pervert violating the body and vandalizing the innocence of a child stirs fundamental disgust. Indeed, child rapists are said to be the one kind of criminal even criminals loathe.
But the bigger reason I made an exception is simply this: at least some of them apparently can't help themselves, driven by compulsions they can't control and science cannot yet cure. Granted, the research that exists on the subject is sparse and often contradictory. It is hard to determine true recidivism rates due to a number of variables, beginning with the question of how recidivism itself is defined (e.g., by re-arrest or re-conviction). By some estimates, as many as half of all pedophiles will commit the crime again. Others put the figure far lower.
My problem is, I don't know what figure is low enough that I would feel safe allowing a Phillip Garrido to ever again breathe free air. His alleged crime brings me out from irresolution and into a cold clarity. It makes the question easy.
What should we do with these monsters? Simple.
Lock them up. Lose the key.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at email@example.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.