The Dateline NBC show To Catch a Predator has not aired a new episode since December 2007, which makes my criticisms today both topical and timely.
The show, which is primarily about naked sex offenders being lectured in a kitchen, concerns me as an attorney in two ways. First, I’m bothered by a private organization – Perverted Justice, an Oregon non-profit with whom Dateline worked – appropriating the role of law enforcement.
Amateur vigilantes make mistakes police officers would not, or at least mistakes that state actors would be held accountable for. In Collin County, Texas, charges against 23 suspected sex offenders were dropped when Perverted Justice provided insufficient usable evidence. As explained by District Attorney John Roach, “the police department, the professionals weren’t in control of the entire operation. They weren’t calling the shots; somebody else was.”
Perverted Justice ostensibly provides training to its unpaid and unprofessional volunteers, though it should be noted that volunteers sign a non-disclosure agreement, making information about the instructions they receive difficult to find. Tragically, the same sting that yielded 23 dropped charges also resulted in one man’s suicide while NBC camera crews waited outside his home. This leads to my next point, and the biggest problem I have with To Catch a Predator: criminal justice as a source of entertainment.
Certainly these people should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but the fact that this was all done for television cameras raises some questions.
–Murphy Mayor Bret Baldwin
To Catch a Predator could teach viewers that 90% of child sex abuse is committed by someone who the child knows. One-third of those perpetrators are family members [PDF]. Only 10% of sex abuse is committed by a stranger, a smaller percentage of which are strangers the child met on the Internet.
To Catch a Predator could teach parents about responsible Internet usage. It could provide information about how to set up Parental Controls, or impress upon parents the importance of monitoring their child’s online activity. It could help parents teach children how to have a healthy relationship with the Internet for the times when the parent is not available.
To Catch a Predator could explore sex offense laws and explain how and why the ‘age of consent’ exists. It could teach that a large percentage of rapists don’t know [PDF] that what they’re doing qualifies as rape.
But instead, To Catch a Predator is all about the spectacle. It’s about Chris Hansen naming and shaming near-naked men until the hidden cameras become not-so-hidden, and the perpetrator leaves into the waiting arms of a camouflage-wearing officer. It is not about education or awareness, but schadenfreude.
The criminal justice system is serious. It deals with a government empowered to take citizens off the streets, seize their assets, and imprison or execute them. This is an enormous power checked only by our guarantees of due process. Turning criminal justice into entertainment is an inappropriate use of this power. A prosecution should involve a professional police force and state attorney, not untrained vigilantes and a camera crew.