How many children must die before lawmakers and the courts decide to keep certain classes of sexual predators behind bars permanently? Joseph Edward Duncan III, a registered sex offender from Fargo, N.D., is the most recent addition to the pantheon of convicted pedophiles who have been let out of jail only to prey on other victims upon their release. Duncan was convicted of twice raping a 14-year-old boy at gunpoint in 1980. He was 16 years old at the time he committed the crime.
Sentenced to 20 years, Duncan was first released after serving 14 years, violated his parole and was sent back to prison in 1997, where he remained until 2000. When he finally got out, he enrolled in college and even made the dean’s list, but soon was trolling for more victims. Duncan was arrested for videotaping and fondling a 6-year-old boy on a playground in Minnesota last July, but instead of being sent back to prison — or at least held without bail — he was released on a $15,000 bond in April, then vanished.
On Saturday, Duncan was arrested and charged with kidnapping 8-year-old Shasta Groene, who disappeared, along with her 9-year-old brother Dylan, in May. Shasta’s mother, 13-year-old brother, and a family friend were found bound and bludgeoned to death at the family home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, on May 16th. An observant waitress at a local restaurant spotted Duncan and Shasta eating breakfast at 2 a.m. Dylan has yet to be found alive, and police fear that remains uncovered in Montana over the weekend are his.
Duncan is only the latest in a long list of convicted sex offenders who have gone on to commit horrendous crimes after being released from jail. Earlier this year, convicted sex offender John Couey was arrested for the murder of Jessica Lunsford in Florida. While Couey was living across the street from Jessica’s home, he is alleged to have taken the 9-year-old from her home, kept her hidden, sexually abused her, and then, according to his own admission, buried her alive. David Onstott, a convicted rapist out on bail for another crime, was charged just one month later with strangling a 13-year-old girl, Sarah Lunde, near her home in Tampa. In May, his jailers found that Onstott had been attempting to dig his way out of his jail cell with a metal towel holder.
Some states have enacted "sexual predator" laws to try to prevent similar horrors. These laws allow the state to commit pedophiles to maximum security mental hospitals after they have served their criminal sentences, a practice the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld on the grounds that these men (and offenders are almost exclusively male) are being treated, not subjected to preventive incarceration. Frankly, for most of these deviants, no treatment is possible. Men who prey on little boys, in particular, are likely to do so again and again. Some estimates put the re-offense rate (which is different than the re-arrest rate) upwards of 80 percent, with the average pedophile likely to commit 13 offenses before he is caught. So why should such men ever be put back on the streets?
The punishment for raping a child ought to be life in prison, period. There ought never to be a second chance for such persons. And while lesser sexual crimes — fondling or possessing child pornography, for example — might deserve a second chance, it must come under the most restrictive circumstances: life-long, electronic monitoring. Any second offense of such crimes should earn a life sentence, with no possibility of parole. Does that mean tens of thousands of ex-sexual offenders (some estimates put the number at 500,000) might end up in jail for life? Not likely, since most of these are not pedophiles, the category of sexual offenders least likely to be rehabilitated. But even if we have to build many more jails to keep such criminals behind bars, wouldn’t it be worth it to save the lives of children like Jessica, Sarah, and so many others who have died because of our failure to do so?