Major chutzpah points to the creators of the award-winning 2016 sex offenders’ rights documentary “Untouchable” for putting their movie into theaters post #MeToo.
A film about the endless parade of laws, often named for children whose molestation, kidnapping, assault and sometimes murder they are aimed to prevent, piling up on the legal system’s books and piling punishment upon convicted offenders was never going to find a big audience. But in January (Jan. 15) of 2019?
And starting your film not just with a montage of governors and presidents signing such laws, but with the disgraced comic Louis CK doing his infamous “child molesters” monologue on “Saturday Night Live?” Wow.
David Feige’s film aims for nuance — aside from that jolt of an opening. Activists — often the parents of victims — the public at large and legislatures have parked a wide range of offenses under the umbrella “sex offender.” That’s tied the legal system’s hands and created punishments, Feige’s film argues, that do not fit the crimes.
So the aged Army veteran John Cryar, a self-described “pedophile” from Oklahoma, is lumped in with Shawna Baldwin, a 20something mother of two who got drunk as a teen and had sex and with an enthusiastic, also drunk 14 year-old boy — both of them on the national sexual offender registry for life.
Child rapists, abductors and murderers are lumped in with child porn collectors and peeping toms.
And all the laws, about where these people who go through “the system,” hopefully (but not always) receiving treatment, counseling, can live, work, congregate, etc. are further blurring any distinction in the nature of the crimes and erasing any leeway the courts might be prone to exercise.
We meet a Florida crusader for such laws and his daughter, abused by a nanny, who as an adult has joined him in that crusade. Ron Book is a big time Miami lobbyist who, on realizing his daughter Lauren had been abused by a Honduran nanny he hired, decided — “I’m a guy with access, a guy with resources.”
For years, he’s pushed for laws, local statues, etc., often with daughter Lauren’s name on them, adding punishments, work and residency restrictions to convicted offenders’ post-prison lives, a practice that can only be called revenge, not deterrence.
Judy Cornett is another Florida crusader, driven by the sexual assault on her son to form “Predator’s Patrols,” using the National Sex Offender Registry as a place where her “vigilantes” (her word) can monitor, harass and turn in to law enforcement registered offenders they see breaking any of the conditions of their parole.
It’s no wonder Florida is the safest state in the country for children. Only it’s not. I know. I live here and work in the media. The crimes continue, gain maximum TV exposure, and fresh rounds of prompt action by the legislature — to the exclusion of far more common crimes and injustices which could use that money and attention.
It’s a subject that draws instant passion and unanimous support. And as Feige’s film digs into the lobbying, the laws that result, and the damning statistics that utterly undercut all this attention on “recidivism” among the range of people classified as “sexual predators,” you have to wonder why.
It’s a self-feeding “punishment machine” one retired judge calls it. And it’s all built on myths, erroneous pre-conceptions, such as when retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy cited an utterly unsupported 1980s “Psychology Today” story by a self-serving counselor to buttress the view that the vast majority of sex offenders become repeat offenders.
Not true. And these laws, such as Miami statutes that so restrict where convicted offenders can live that many — with again, a wide range of offenses putting them under this umbrella punishment — have been rendered homeless, unable to work, camped in a handful of vacant lots or under this or that particular highway underpass? They don’t have any impact at all in child sexual assault rates.
When your kid is most likely to be molested by a family member, family friend, clergy member, coach or scout leader — moving people who have done their time and are on probation — for life — into a tent in a parking lot doesn’t help.
Feige can be accused of cherry-picking the offenders he wants to profile, using only montages of TV coverage to show the “monsters” — loners, vagrants, often with “Duck Dynasty” grooming — who are the demonized reasons for the laws’ existence.
But Federal, state and academic studies are jammed with statistics that back up his thesis. The controls and punishments of those already convicted are effective. Adding on to that is misplacing resources and papering over the problem and preventing people who have served their time from making a contribution to society.
Ironically, shaker-and-mover Ron Book comes off as the villain of the piece — dogmatic, bellicose, a bully who will not consider the fact that he’s not helping matters. He admits, late in the film, that no, not one law he’s jammed through the Florida legislature would have protected his daughter. It’s a pity Feige doesn’t ask an even harder question.
“Are you doing this out of guilt for not vetting or monitoring the Honduran nanny you hired to take care of your precious child?”
Feige added footage to “Untouchable” after the film’s festival tour of 2016, which offers an added topicality — the Weinstein, Cosby, Louis CK, Lauer and Trump sex abuse scandals folded into the conversation.
The film has a little hope that if Book won’t bend, maybe his daughter (who rode her notoriety into the Florida State Legislature) will. The vigilante nature of the way the laws have been “hijacked” has filled the mother of Jacob Wettinger, the child whose abduction led to the national registry, with regrets and even given the “vigilante” Cornett pause. The intention was for this information to be available to law enforcement, not law-unto-themselves-civilians.
But “Untouchable” is yet another dispiriting reminder that Americans are ruled by passion, not science or reason, when it comes to crime and punishment.
MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic sex crime descriptions, profanity
Cast: Ron Book, Lauren Book, Shawna Baldwin, John Cryar, Eric Janus
Credits: Directed by David Feige. A Meerkat Media release.
Running time: 1:43