Maine has become notorious recently for interesting (and some innovative) developments with respect to its criminal justice system. Three stories in particular have grabbed the attention of news outlets, one controversial, one groundbreaking and one plain ridiculous.
The first was reported from the pulpit of Bill O’Reilly on his nightly FOX news program as well as in the pages of this paper. In mid-April, it was widely reported that Stephan Marshall took out his own form of vengeance on two registered sex offenders that he looked up and tracked using the state’s online sex predator registry. The debate was thusly sparked. Where is the line between protecting the innocent and protecting the condemned?
In my introductory criminal justice course, most students opted for the former. These people have committed heinous crimes and we need not think about their rights. Disturbingly, some felt that the two offenders received their just deserts. However, those we issue the tag “sex offender” are not a homogenous group. One of Marshall’s victims was a young man who had sex with a 15-year-old when he himself was 20 years old. Without coming to the conclusion that this is an acceptable act, it is easy to see a difference between these acts and those of a 57-year-old man convicted of raping a child.
So the question then becomes: are all sex offenders created equal? Should we carte blanche put everyone convicted under this title in the registry? Or should Maine follow the example of Massachusetts and only file the more serious offenders? If one goes with the latter, then the difficult task becomes one of creating a system of ranking sexual criminals. This implicitly suggests that some sex crimes are “more acceptable” than others. Not sure that’s a territory that many want to venture into.
The next topic, is, while still somewhat controversial, more along the lines of pioneering. A report by Stephen Wessler and Alysia Melnick in February of last year detailed the pervasive problem of violence against the homeless. These authors pointed out that “people target the homeless because they think they are better than homeless people, and have the right to pick on them because they have something the homeless people don’t have.”
Internet-savvy teens are well aware of the series titled “bumfights” in which a group of kids with parents who forgot to raise them pay homeless people to fight each other, often resulting in serious injury.
So Maine decided to take action. Recently Gov. John Baldacci signed into law a bill that makes targeting homeless people a hate crime. This is one of the only such laws in the country, and is well needed, especially in light of stories such as that of a homeless man in Bangor being burned to death underneath a bridge. Last year alone, there were 73 reports of assaults on homeless people, which indicates that indeed some sort of hatred for this demographic exists.
The law will hopefully spark similar bills in other states such as Maryland, where such a law was rejected last year. While some, such as Colby College Professor Joseph R. Reisert, feel these actions are a waste of time (or so he wrote in a recent op-ed), the law brings much needed protection to those who have so little.
Finally, in another story that caught nationwide attention, Maine decided to extend restraining orders to animals. The law does have good intentions, as it allows women who are trying to leave abusive relationships the ability to take their loved pets with them.
However, the idea that animals need to be protected by restraining orders seems a bit over the top. It has long been law that if the animal protective services deemed a home unfit for a pet to live in, the animals would be confiscated and given a better, more loving home. And while it may be true that enraged boyfriends or husbands sometimes take their aggression out on a woman’s pets, a restraining order on the pet alone is not warranted.
After all, angry people also keep articles of clothing as a form of control, but few would suspect Maine will next begin protecting panties. And what happens if the perpetrator is walking down the street and the animal saunters up to the likely familiar figure? Will he be in violation of the restraining order? This law will, in all likelihood, do more symbolically than tangibly in protecting women.
Who would have thought that little old Maine would be in the forefront of criminal justice endeavors? For a state that ranked the third most safe in the country, there seems to be quite a bit of interest here in crime prevention. And while some of these strategies may be a little silly, others have the potential to revolutionize national laws, thus protecting the innocent that much more effectively. I know when I come home for the summer, I will be safe.
Michael Rocque is a freelance writer from Augusta. He is attending the University of Maryland pursuing a graduate degree in criminology.