Roberts’ All-Too-Numerous Rules

CNN anchor Thomas Roberts has come forward with a story about how a Catholic priest abused him as a child. Roberts went through a terrible experience. By coming forward, he has shown tremendous courage. I admire him. His abuser, however, spent only 10 month in prison and another 8 in home detention.

That just isn’t enough. Like everyone else with a pulse and a moral center, I hate pedophiles. If it did not create a perverse incentive to commit murder, I would support the death penalty for all second-time child molesters. But the desire for “more laws to protect our children” has had the perverse consequence of confusing the entire issue. Child pornography, to my knowledge, has never been legal anywhere in the United States. Every state has an age-of-consent law. No school district, summer camp, or day care center hires known child molesters. The penalties on the books are rightly severe almost everywhere and always have been.

But we’ve passed law after law to add punishments we don’t need. So far as I can tell, three of the last four federal non-terrorism-related crime bills have dealt with child molesters. Nobody will vote against a “get tough on pedophiles” bill, but most of the new laws just aren’t needed. They just pile rules upon rules.

Just passively collecting child pornography now carries a five year federal sentence. Even with “good time,” this means two-and-a-half years — longer than Roberts’s molester. Likewise, people can now do federal time simply for sending a teenager an explicit email message over the Internet. Another federal law will add teenagers who commit “statutory rape” against other teenagers to a national sex offenders’ registry. They’ll be unable to work in a large number of jobs or even visit their own children at school. I see no reason to make either of those first two acts legal. But neither is as bad as actually molesting a child. In most cases, we’re probably better off leaving them to state laws. There are a lot of freaks in the world and, fortunately, most of them are pretty much harmless.

By multiplying the number of “pedophiles,” we’ve actually erased distinctions between behavior that’s simply disturbing and that which is downright evil. And the overreach continues: Now Connecticut may require social networking sites like MySpace to verify their users’ ages. Because some actual pedophiles are sure to do it, I could see how a legislator could propose a law that makes lying about ones’ age on these sites a criminal offense and a new form of “pedophilia.”

Let’s bring some moral clarity to the discussion and focus attention on locking up the truly bad people for a really long time.