Archive for September 25, 2009

Sex Offenders in Society

September 25, 2009 Comments off : Sex Offenders in Society. : How Should We Deal with Sex Offenders?

The issue of how to treat sex offenders causes unease for many people. Highly publicized crimes of the most heinous nature have understandably led to aggressive state and federal sanctions for sex offenders. These policies include sex offender registries, residency restrictions, and ineligibility for types of employment and licensing.

Reactionary policies have resulted in unjust and unsafe consequences.

Unfortunately, these reactionary policies not only lead to unjust sentences, but they also detract from public safety. First, many severe restrictions apply to both minor and serious offenders—teenagers who moon someone can be subject to some of the same consequences as rapists, including restrictions on where they can live and mistreatment from neighbors who recognize their names on a registry. Second, applying tough sanctions without regard to offenders’ actual risk makes the community less safe by diverting police attention away from dangerous people to people who may have only committed youthful indiscretions. Third, sex offender policies assume that sex offenders have high recidivism rates, yet the recidivism rates are relatively low—according to one study, only 5.1% of sex offenders are re-arrested for a new sex offense in the three years following release. If anything, reactionary policies encourage recidivism by barring ex-offenders from employment and housing.

Justice Fellowship advocates for common sense treatment for sex offenders so that law enforcement can focus on truly risky people; minor offenders can experience just sentencing; and all offenders have the opportunity to experience rehabilitation and restorative justice. Promising reforms include narrowing the requirements for who must be listed on sex offender databases and who must be subject to residency and licensing restrictions. Lawmakers must carefully consider the effects of sex-offender laws on offenders’ ability to live productive lives. The church also must recognize that sex offenders, like other offenders, can be restored to society—and these individuals need the church to support their journey to restoration.

Focus on the Real Threats to Safety

Unfortunately, the sex offender statutes are written so broadly that they lump many people convicted of relatively minor offenses in with the hard core sex offenders. Most states require all those convicted of a sexual offense to register with the local police and prohibit them from living anywhere near a school, day care center or park. We certainly want to keep child molesters away from children. The problem is that the term “sex offender” is so broad that it includes people we are mad at as well as those we fear will harm children or vulnerable people.

Applying these tough sanctions without regard to the actual danger posed by the offenders actually makes us less safe. The laws force law enforcement to spend a great deal of time and money keeping tabs on those who committed youthful indiscretions, when the police should be allowed to concentrate on monitoring hard core sexual offenders.

In addition, overly broad definitions of sex offenders divert public attention from those who truly pose a threat. In many states all individuals on the sex offender list are posted on the web and appear on maps of registered sex offenders. This causes tremendous fear among the public because they don’t realize that their neighbor may only be on the list because they went skinny dipping as teenager over 30 years ago. The lists and maps don’t distinguish between youthful indiscretions and those who are a real threat. So, the public assumes the worst.

In a very dangerous confluence of bureaucratic inefficiency combined with zeal to warn the public about sex offenders, some agencies have listed innocent people. Their names were the same or similar to convicted sex offenders, and the bureaucrats didn’t bother to sort them out. In January 2008, the State Controller audited New York’s registry and found that one-fourth of the records they surveyed had mismatched driver’s license information. Even worse, details of licenses for the wrong people were given out as those of offenders.

Stringent Residency Restrictions Backfire

Probation agents and police officers tell me that, though well intended, residency restrictions have made it harder to keep track of sex offenders. In many urban areas, every square foot of the city is off limits because a school, day care center, churches or other place where children gather is within the restricted zone. In California, offenders cannot live within 2000 feet of any school or park. How does an ex offender comply with the law? Many end up sleeping under bridges, in parks or behind trash bins in industrial areas. As a spokesperson for Florida Department of Corrections told USA Today, “If we drive these offenders so far underground or we can’t supervise them because they become so transient, it’s not making us safer.”

Minnesota studied the impact of residency restrictions and concluded that:

[t]here [was] no evidence in Minnesota that residential proximity to schools or parks affects re-offense. Thirteen level three offenders released between 1997 and 1999 have been rearrested for a new sex offense since their release from prison, and in none of the cases has residential proximity to schools or parks been a factor in the re-offense. Level III Sex Offenders: Residential Placement Issues

Yet, despite the evidence to the contrary, legislators keep trying to expand the reach of sex offender laws. In Virginia one proposal would prevent them from ever entering a church. While that is not the intent, the proposed bill would ban sex offenders from “the premises of any child or day care center or any other type of school both during and after school hours.” Since many churches have a day care center or school on the premises, this bill would ban offenders from church even when children were not present.

No Easy Answers

To understand the many complex issues surrounding sex offenses, I highly recommend that you read “No Easy Answers” a report by Human Rights Watch. It counteracts many myths surrounding sex offenses. One of them is that “[s]ome politicians cite recidivism rates for sex offenders that are as high as 80-90 percent. In fact, most (three out of four) former sex offenders do not reoffend and most sex crimes are not committed by former offenders.”

The report provides real life examples of the overreach of the statutes. One profiled offender said,
“What the registry doesn’t tell people is that I was convicted at age 17 of sex with my 14-year-old girlfriend, that I have been offense-free for over a decade, that I have completed my therapy, and that the judge and my probation officer didn’t even think I was at risk of reoffending. My life is in ruins, not because I had sex as a teenager, and not because I was convicted, but because of how my neighbors have reacted to the information on the internet.”

I serve on the Prison Rape Elimination Commission with Jamie Fellner, the director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch. She is a brilliant and passionate defender of vulnerable people. Her summation of what our priorities should be in dealing with sex offenders hits the mark: “Children deserve laws that work. And former offenders need laws that allow them to rebuild their lives because when they succeed in safely rejoining their communities, we are all safer.”

I have heard it said that sex offenders are modern day lepers. That is probably pretty accurate. And we know that Jesus didn’t shun lepers. Instead, He loved them and healed them. He expects us to do the same.

In His service,
Pat Nolan
Vice President, Prison Fellowship

Ala. Judge Strikes Down Part of Sex Offender Law

September 25, 2009 Comments off : Alabama’s sex offender laws challenged.

A Montgomery circuit judge has struck down a portion of the state’s sex offender law, saying that a provision that requires indigent offenders to provide a verifiable address as a condition of their release is unconstitutional.

Several homeless sex offenders sought to have the Class C felonies that they were charged with for not complying with the law dismissed citing that the provision violated their rights.

Under Alabama’s Community Notification Act, incarcerated sex offenders must provide law enforcement officials a verifiable address where they will live 45 days prior to their release. Failure to comply with that provision is a Class C felony, and the sex offender is immediately taken to county jail upon release. The offender could face 15 years to life in prison if convicted because of the state’s Habitual Offender Act, according to briefs filed on behalf of the homeless defendants.

Lawyers for the defendants in the cases argued successfully that they were being punished for not complying with a law that was physically impossible to abide by, and that they were essentially being re-imprisoned after they had served their sentences.

Attorney General Troy King said he is appealing the rulings because an “actual address,” which the law requires, can be anything from a homeless shelter to a park bench. “We have argued in these briefs that homeless sex offenders can comply,” he said. “You don’t have to live at a house with a street address to comply. The law is broad enough that if you live in a park you can use that as an address.”

That’s as long as that park isn’t within 2,000 feet of a child-care facility, a K-12 school, or a college or university campus. During the 2009 legislative session, lawmakers approved adding college and university campuses to the list of places in Alabama that sex offenders couldn’t live near.

Birmingham attorney David Gespass said that many of the existing laws are based on emotion and not reality. He said cases such as that of Jaycee Dugard, who was abducted by a registered sex offender and held for 18 years, grab headlines but the truth of the matter is those cases are quite rare. Gespass says legislators and politicians often push for such laws so they can appear tough on crime, but whether the population at large is any safer is debatable.

He said the state would be better served by identifying which offenders are truly dangerous and monitoring those individuals more closely.

Tuscaloosa County Public Defender Bobby Wooldridge said people don’t want to hear it, but there are some basic rights that even sex offenders have that can’t be violated, and he expects there to be more legal challenges in the future.

King said when his office started pursuing tougher restrictions and penalties for sex offenders, it knew there would be legal challenges.

Fla. Apartments Offer Home to Sex Offenders

September 25, 2009 Comments off

GoogleNews/AP : Sex offenders welcome: Fla. apartments offer home.

Pahokee, Fla. — A cluster of one-story yellow buildings surrounding a small church caters to one of society’s most despised demographics: sex offenders.

Since the development opened eight months ago, the minister who runs it has recruited former inmates by distributing brochures in Florida prisons and plugging it in sermons at the lockups. Some 35 sex offenders now live in the complex about three miles from Pahokee, a poor farming community of 6,000 wedged into sugar cane fields of the Everglades.

“Leaving prison or jail soon? … Do you have special requirements concerning where you can and cannot live? You may have just found the answer to your prayers,” reads the pamphlet advertising the privately operated, 24-acre village.

The village has become a haven for the ex-cons, who face tight restrictions on where they can live. Nationwide, hundreds of ordinances require sex offenders to dwell at least 1,000 feet from anywhere children gather — schools, churches, parks, bus stops. Elsewhere, narrow housing options have prompted clusters of offenders to live in tents and other makeshift structures, such as the 70 or so who live beneath the bridge that connects Miami and Miami Beach.

“Society sees us as lepers, like rejects,” said Louis Aponte, who moved into Miracle Park three months ago from the nearby Glades Correctional Institution after serving almost nine years for attempted sexual battery on a young female family member. “I don’t know where I’d be without it, probably living with my family, but that would be tough,” he said.

The neighborhood is the brainchild of Richard Witherow, a minister has been preaching to inmates for about 30 years. Surrounded by nothing but sugar cane fields and country roads, Pahokee seemed the perfect fit for the venture — far enough removed from the voices of dissent, or so Witherow hoped.

Several attempts at establishing a place like Miracle Park elsewhere in Florida failed after local governments kicked him out. “People get hysterical when you mention sex offenders,” Witherow said. He said Pahokee shouldn’t fear his tenants, who pay about $500 a month in rent and work odd jobs around the site if they can’t find work elsewhere. Witherow also offers church services and classes on relationships and anger management. “The ticking time bomb here does not exist,” Witherow said.

Jill Levenson, a Lynn University professor in Boca Raton who studies sex offenders, said most of them don’t commit new sex crimes. Still, she said it’s rare to see a property owner welcoming sex offenders — much less advertising to them.

“There is a fairly small subgroup of sex offenders who seem to be most dangerous, most likely to re-offend, but the majority do not,” Levenson said.

Studies on sex offender recidivism rates have produced varied results, from as little as 5 percent re-offending to more than 30 percent, depending on the severity of the original offenses. (Official U.S. Dept. of Justice Statistics say the rate is 5.3% – see post on Sex Offender Data)

Sgt. Mark Jolly, of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Sexual Predator Offender Tracking Unit, said authorities have had no reports of Miracle Park residents committing new crimes.

Last month, the Palm Beach County Office of Equal Opportunity determined Witherow, his Matthew 25 Ministries, and the complex’s owner, Alston Management Inc., the company Witherow leases from, violated the county’s fair housing ordinance by threatening to evict families with children.

A letter sent in December by Alston Management informed tenants in what was then Pelican Lake Village that it was becoming “adults only.” Witherow started renting to offenders in January.

“If you have children living or staying in the apartment under the age of 18 years old, you will have to vacate the property,” or be evicted, the letter stated.

The Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and the Florida Equal Justice Center have sued Witherow and Alston on behalf of former residents, claiming they violated county and federal fair housing laws.

Legal aid attorney Shane Weaver said the housing of sex offenders is not the concern. Legally, Miracle Park can exist because it sits in an unincorporated part of Palm Beach County far enough away from where children gather, so it violates no laws.

However, Weaver said: “You can’t just target people with children and say, ‘Leave.'”
(Apparently, people such as these believe banishing a group of citizens is legal when applied to sex offenders – so why is it wrong to do to others?)