Prep School Crime & Punishment

JIM COLE/AP

Jim Cole/AP

Owen Labrie, the prep school rape defendant in New Hampshire, who’s been accepted into Harvard, admittedly seems to have perpetuated a dorm culture where the sexual conquest of female peers is seen as manly virtue–the more the better. And there does seem to have been at least some element of coercion with the sexual contact of his accuser–I don’t doubt he pressured her into going further than she wanted. He was held accountable, and was found guilty of four misdemeanor charges. The punishment for those charges should be proportionate to the offense and also proportionate for someone with no violent or criminal past or risk. But the punishment should not be so devastatingly severe that it will not allow him to then proceed with his education and a future life, however now tarnished.

However, he was also found guilty of using the Internet to sexually solicit a minor (even though he was a minor himself)–a felony that will require 3-15 years of imprisonment and lifetime as a registered sex offender. This is because, as I understand the facts, he had texted the accuser, inviting her out on dates, to which she had positively responded.

This case is heartbreaking all around–a culture that celebrates disrespect of women, a young woman violated, a young man who would have his actions haunt him the rest of his life. But the brutality of imprisonment and the social pariah status he will suffer as a sex offender–not because of sexual assault (he was acquitted of the most severe rape charge)—but because of texting to ask a girl on a date–is an outrage to reason and justice.

Laws such as these are supposedly designed to prevent online sexual predators from enticing minors into sexual acts. There are plenty of reasons to oppose these laws–for the police surveillance state it creates, the false sense of security it produces–but especially because of their potential for abuse. The defense in this case is appealing the felony conviction–not the jury’s verdict itself, they are instead attacking both the constitutionality of the statute and the prosecutor for overreaching by applying the statute in this case.

This young man, whatever one thinks of his juvenile objectification of women, is clearly no online sexual predator for whom these laws and the public sex offender registry were ostensibly created. He is also an example of the horrific collateral consequences of our harsh criminal approach that defines our ongoing sex moral panic and hysteria. If there is any bright light to be found in this awful situation, it is that the appellate courts in New Hampshire might strike down this law as overly broad in its application and severity, if not overturn it entirely. Destroying the lives of our children because we can’t rationally protect our children–and then calling it justice–should shame us all.

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