The governor of Illinois signed into law yesterday a bill that banishes sex offenders from social networking sites. The law, designed to protect children from predators who use sites such as Facebook and MySpace to lure potential victims, is the first of its kind. While some are lauding the legislation as a positive step in stopping sex offenders, others are saying it undermines the criminal justice system and sits on the border between justified and inhumane.
"The idea was, if the predator is supposed to be a registered sex offender, they should keep their Internet distance as well as their physical distance. The object is to protect innocent individuals on the Internet from sex offenders," Senator Bill Brady told The Chicago Tribune.
Illinois law already bars sex offenders from proximity to schools, requires registration every ten years, and, in some cases, classifies individuals as offenders for life. An individual can become a sexual offender by committing "public indecency for a third or subsequent conviction." That means if you repeatedly duck behind a Dumpster to relieve yourself and are caught, you're a sex offender.
Also take into consideration the rise of "sexting" amongst teenagers. Sexting -- the distribution of semi-nude or nude images via cellphones and other mobile gadgets -- is an ignorant, but all-too-common practice. Let's say a 15-year-old is caught with images of another 15-year-old on his/her cellphone. Say good-bye to Facebook.
Some may think, "Who cares? It's just Facebook." Perhaps that's accurate. But it's the principle of the law that's more bothersome than the details. The law essentially damns the convicted well beyond the time he/she has served.
This law is particularly problematic due to the fact that social networking is integrating itself into a large portion of Web sites. Even job-hunting sites such as LinkedIn are off limits, cordoning offenders even further from society and basically demolishing the idea that the criminal justice system can actually reform. You go to jail, you serve your time, but even after you're supposedly rehabilitated and when you're allowed to re-enter society, you're still imprisoned.
Mike Doyle of Chicago Now makes an interesting point delineating one type of crime from another. "A maniac with a gun can shoot a child, leave them physically and emotionally scarred for life, go to prison for 20 years, get out on parole, and continue on with their lives." Why should sex offenders be treated more harshly than murderers?
Illinois has enacted potentially dangerous legislation. If this phenomenon spreads across the States, we as a society are at risk of creating, as Doyle puts it, "virtual concentration camps."