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The battle over the fate of sex offenders is nothing new. As far back as the 1950s and earlier, intense debates arose in the United States over whether to treat them or lock them up, maybe for good.
In San Diego County, there was another option. From the 1930s until the 1960s, judges offered convicted sex offenders a choice: they could go to prison or allow their testicles to be removed.
Hundreds of the men, 370 by one estimate, chose castration and were allowed to go on probation.
“It was offered as a curative option. That was when the science said you can actually cure sex offenders by castrating them,” said San Diego City College adjunct political science professor Mark Linsky in an interview. He wrote about San Diego’s castration movement in a 1989 article for The Journal of San Diego History.
Judge Lawrence Neil Turrentin was the first to offer the prison-or-castration choice to sex offenders in 1938. The decision, Linsky wrote, “would lead to national notoriety for San Diego.”
At the time, scientists thought castration would prevent sex offenders from having sexual thoughts. (There’s still debate over the treatment today.)
Turrentin, for one, thought his approach worked: “Not a single probationer has ‘backfired’ with any criminal case of consequence,” he declared, a roundabout way of saying the offenders didn’t get in serious trouble again.
Linsky wrote that the number of castrations was “staggering,” even though the exact figures are elusive. The total number seems to be at least 240 and possibly above 400; apparently, about 90 percent of them were child molesters.
Judge John Hewicker, known as the “Hanging Judge” because he was so strict, continued offering the castration choice after Judge Turrentin retired. Judges allowed convicted offenders in San Diego to choose castration through the 1960s.
“There was no maliciousness in their motivations,” Linsky said. “They were basing this on what they thought was solid science 75-80 years ago. They felt they were giving benefit to these men by keeping them out of prison and restoring them to society.”
There seemed to be little, if any, criticism locally, although the castrations made some people in the law enforcement and medical communities uncomfortable.
There’s not much known about what the offenders themselves thought after being castrated, although one said in an affidavit that “it was the best thing that ever happened to me … the operation cured me completely. It’s five years since I had it, but not once have I felt the least desire to touch a little girl.”
By the 1970s, attitudes had changed. Two convicted child molesters asked to undergo castration and, as The New York Times reported, they “signed waivers releasing their lawyers, the judge and court- appointed doctor from liability for the operation.”
The judge was willing to move forward, but finding a court-appointed doctor proved difficult because local physicians refused to perform the operation. Then, as Linsky writes, “when several other doctors apparently volunteered to perform the castrations and then changed their minds, the two defendants were sentenced to castrations and then changed their minds.”
They ended up in prison.
Today, castration for sex offenders is still debated. Several states, including California, allow prisoners to undergo “chemical castration” — the adjustment of hormones through the use of drugs.
And there’s still debate over whether castration, through surgery or hormone treatment, effectively treats sex offenders by lowering their sex drives.