Dear A.M. Costa Rica:
Pedophilia is a horrific mental illness. Pedophilia is a horrific crime. These two definitions clash with each other when it comes time to respond to the pedophile.
New Jersey was the first State in the U.S. to construct a prison facility for those convicted of sex crimes, in 1976 in the town of Avenel. Although I wasn’t directly involved in treatment or research on sex crimes, I visited the facility several times in the course of my own work. It was an outstanding penal institution with a heavy emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation.
And then, one of the former inmates of this facility was the man who later defiled and killed little Megan, whose death spurred the first statewide sex crimes registry and notification act in the U.S. He had been released as rehabilitated. The creation of that law generated enormous protests, for and against, regarding the civil rights of the offender and the definition of the behavior, whether as illness or crime.
Research on sex crime, in particular on pedophilia, is poor. The activity only comes to the attention of authorities when the offender has committed a large number of crimes. We do know, however, that those who are identified and convicted of sex crimes have a high rate of recidivism. And we also know, based on recent research conducted in New Jersey, that even with intense treatment while incarcerated, the rate of recidivism for further sex crimes remains as high as before treatment. (Rates for other types of crimes seem to be reduced, but the sex crimes are not.)
Sex crime and other forms of deviant behavior (such as drug use, gambling, and prostitution) are at the edge of civil rights. The question always becomes: How much of my behavior should be controlled by society? For me, the answer lies in the further question: Is there a victim? If there is, then society has a responsibility to protect itself against the offender. One way to judge the severity of a sex crime is to look at its intensity. For instance, the recent arrests in Costa Rica that involved many hundreds of CDs and hard drives filled with pedophilia, reflect extensive obsessive and compulsive behavior. We cannot even guess at how many little children are the victims.
For victimless crimes, I believe that government has no right to meddle in my business. But for crimes with victims, I want protection for myself and my loved ones. Pedophilia is one of those crimes. And because it has a substantially high rate of recidivism, society should consider it as the highly intractable mental illness that it is, and institutionalize pedophiles accordingly. They are a life threatening danger to the weakest members of society, our children.