Oprah films at the homeless sex offender camp at Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami, which has become a national symbol of the excesses of ill-fated sex offender residency restrictions.
The Mess in Miami: The consequences of ill-fated legislationPosted on Aug 21, 2009 1:52 AM on my personal blog on the Oprah Winfrey site.
In my five years as an advocate for the Former *ex Offender, I have heard the same suggestions over the years as to what to do with released *ex offenders -- Kill them, castrate them, banish them, and so on. At the least, we support an increasing number of laws against them, from public registries to civil commitment to GPS to residency restrictions. After over a dozen years of retributive measures, we are starting to see the negative consequences of laws written in response to social panics rather than proven fact.
Many of you won't care, flooding Oprah with the same "they are getting what they deserve" comments that usually fill forums and message boards around the country. However, I think maybe we should care. I believe it is time we really consider what is working and what is not working in preventing *ex crimes in the first place. For decades, this country has been inundated with myths about the very nature of *ex crimes and the people who commit these crimes. We've passed legislation in the names the victims of high profile tragedies, heralding each law as a panacea until the net tragic case makes headlines. The end result is laws which have made it nearly impossible for any convicted *ex offender to earn an opportunity to reintegrate and become a productive member of society after his or her timeis served.
Reintegration and a stable post-release existence is integral for many reasons. The most important reason is stable housing, employment, treatment, and social networking are bulwarks of reducing recidivism amongst *ex offenders (or any ex-offender for that matter). Contrary to what we've been taught, *ex offenders have the lowest rate of recidivism of any crime, and that number can be reduced even further by proper treatment of those who have *exually offended. Furthermore, by focusing on those on a public list, we tend to forget that the vast majority of *ex crimes are committed by someone the victim knows, like a close friend or family member, and that most are not on the public registry. And in our zeal to eradicate molestation and rape, we have made the laws so sensitive we have arrested children as young as age 10 and placed on sex offender registries. The Dallas Morning News recently reported that over 4000 individuals on the registry were placed on the registry when they were minors. And the Adam Walsh Act, the very same bill Oprah implored her viewers to flood Congress to support and fund, forces states to register minors as young as age 14 or face a 10% cut to federal Law Enforcement grants. Just think, your teenage son could be registered for life for consensual relations with his teenage lover! (For an example simply google "Ricky's Life")
The one thing noticeably absent from discussions about *ex crimes is prevention. We have been led to believe post release *ex crime laws are "prevention," but they are not. True prevention is a multifaceted approach which requires educating the public truthfully on *exual matters. Our culture treats S-E-X as a dirty word to the point we can't even type it in most forums, and when it comes to our own youth, we let their peers, the internet and mass media teach our youth about the "s" word. But even in those rare discussions of sexuality are discussed, no one even considers discussing the other sex-related issues, like how to deal with improper sexual feelings and behaviors. In fact, the very laws we've enacted to prevent *ex crimes are the laws which prevent those struggling with sexual problems to seek help until it is too late.
If society took a treatment-oriented approach to this issue, we'd see far better results than the vengeance-oriented approach we have promoted for over a decade. It is not about sympathizing with the convicted *ex offender or condoning what they have done (or the favorite claim "supporting pedophilia"). However, they have served a sentence for their time and was released into society, their debts to the state paid. I don't expect anyone to open up their homes to a registrant; however, they should be given an opportunity once released to reintegrate and become productive members of society.Even Patty Wetterling, the woman who championed the first national sex offender registry through Congress in 1994, has spoken out against tough feel-good measures. She implores us to get smart rather than tough on sex crimes.
Derek Logue, author of the book "Once Fallen," famously stated in a fight over residency laws, "Where are we supposed to live?" In Miami, the answer is the Julia Tuttle Causeway. Eighty people forced under a bridge in the name of noble but misguided crusade. Consider how Iowa recently repealed residency laws after a significant increase in homelessness and absconding registrants, while *ex crime rates remain the same. Kansas passed a moratorium against residency restrictions because of Iowa's problems. A series of studies from Colorado and Minnesota also found residency laws do not work; in fact, the studies concluded these laws may possibly increase recidivism. Even Florida Senator Dave Aronberg stated residency laws are ineffective and counterproductive (before suggesting the state increase residency restrictions). And now, even Ron Book, the one who put many of the registants under the JTC, admits the laws have backfired. However, like Logue, no one has received a straight answer to the question.
So where are they supposed to live? Ron Book's "solution" was an abandoned county jail or an empty parking lot 35 miles away, far away from the cameras of the worldwide media. It took worldwide attention and an ACLU just to begin a move to find housing for 80 people. However, when those eighty are out of the spotlight, what will happen to them? And where will those ready to be released from prison also go? While peoplelove to make the same comments, the fact is many people will be released from prison for *ex crimes. Ask yourself which is more important -- Revenge or Results? Reason or Wrath? If the goal was truly about protecting children instead of exacting revenge, then we would work towards a path of healing, not just for the victims but for those who have offended.