Opinion: Many 'sex offenders' deserve rights.
[Kentucky] Gov. Beshear’s recent decision to restore voting rights to many felons is an encouraging step toward criminal justice reform. The governor listed a litany of reasons why ‘it makes no sense" to deny opportunities to those seeking to rebuild their lives after serving out their sentences. He cited a key study that those whose rights are restored are less likely to commit another crime.
Though this signifies a significant policy shift, I am disappointed that the governor’s executive order did not go far enough. He excluded among others, those who commit a "sex-related offense." While this might be overwhelmingly applauded by most, the facts and studies do not support the belief that those convicted of sex offenses are more likely to commit another offense, or that such a population is more dangerous and incurable.
I do not seek to diminish the pain of those who have endured sexual abuse, as their suffering certainly requires suitable punishment for those who have inflicted such harm. It is true there is a small segment whose risk level is so high as to require restrictive oversight to protect the public and children. Fortunately, we have testing methodologies today that can more accurately assess one’s risk level and predict level of dangerousness. But these more serious offenders, while often in the spotlight of media coverage, are more the exception rather than the rule.
The mere mention of the word "sex offender" evokes an image of a school-ground lurker or a van driver looking for kids to grab off the streets, deserving of no mercy. But this stereotype doesn’t mesh with the facts. The vast majority of those who have committed a "sex-related" offense are not pedophiles nor do they engage in predatory behavior, yet they are required to register as sex offenders for offenses that would surprise many. As public officials have legislated harsher sentences against those committing sex offenses, the number and degree of offenses requiring "sex offender" registration has greatly expanded. Our laws and restrictions assume that sex offenders are likely to offend, or dangerous and specialize in sexual offending. But research findings say otherwise
Those convicted of sex offenses have to complete an intensive two-year treatment program in Kentucky, followed by an equally intensive aftercare counseling program after their release from prison. As a private treatment provider, I have counseled many young male adults who, barely out of adolescence themselves, will be on the registry for decades for having sexual contact with a minor who was just a few years younger than they.
Being on a very public sex offender registry for a good deal of their life makes it difficult for them to find gainful employment, enter vocational school, or find suitable housing. The registry is like a "scarlet letter," branding one with residency restrictions and limitations that will follow well into middle age. Long after one has served his sentence, there is no pathway to coming off the registry, even with years of good behavior. (In some cases, as highlighted by a recent CJ article (Aug. 8, 2015), some offenders with severe medical disabilities are forced to stay in prison beyond the completion of their sentences due to having no nursing facilities that can accept them).
Fortunately, many are successful in becoming law-abiding, responsible, contributing members of society, despite the hardships and the “sex offender" label they are tagged with. Let’s hope that as criminal justice reform gains traction, they will be seen as deserving of having the full benefits of their citizenship restored.
Jim Schorch is a Louisville-based licensed marriage and family therapist and a state certified treatment provider for those who have committed sex offenses.