Friday, December 29, 2017

We can't afford showy but ineffective sex offender policies

This was a recent headline in the Daily Democrat in Yolo, California, recently:       " 'OperationVigilance’ targets Yolo County sex offenders.”  

“Yolo County law enforcement conducted surprise compliance checks on over 300 sex offenders earlier this week…”

“While many of the sex offenders investigated were in compliance, two sex offenders contacted were arrested for a variety of weapons, pornography and other violations. An additional 18 of these offenders are the subject of further investigation to determine whether or not they are in compliance.”
“Over 60 law enforcement personnel from seven local, state, and federal agencies participated in this joint operation from 15 agencies…” 

I suggest we look at this from a slightly different perspective. 

An unknown number of law enforcement man hours and an unknown amount of taxpayer dollars were expended in Yolo County recently when more than 60 law enforcement officers from 15 local, state, and federal agencies visited over 300 persons on California’s sex offender registry who were all living exactly where they were registered as living. Two of the 300 + persons were arrested. One or both of the two were in possession of weapons, illegal for all felons, and one or both were in possession of pornography. Whether or not the pornography consisted of legal or illegal images is not stated, but if they were on parole or probation, viewing even legal pornography is forbidden.

An additional 18 of the registrants are being further investigated for some sort of possible minor registration or probation compliance violation such as driving a family member’s car not listed on the registration form or being in a location that was, unknown to the registrant, inside an exclusionary zone too close to something like a day care facility or a park. 

Almost 300 registrants are indisputably in compliance. None of them, in fact none of the over 300 with the possible exception of the one or two in possession of pornography, has been arrested for a sexual re-offense. 

Questions need to be asked. 

How many have been on the registry 0-5 years? 6-15 years? 16-30 years? With California’s policy of lifetime registration for all, an enormous and growing number are still required to register decades after the commission of a single, possibly misdemeanor, offense. 

Does the expenditure of resources accomplish the stated goal? Do these checks by law enforcement prevent or even discourage future offense? It seems highly improbable that it could. Knowing where a person lives places no restraints on what he does when he is away from home or, indeed, even when he is at home. Lawenforcement regularly visited Philip Garrido, a registered sex offender, for all of the 18 years that he was holding and raping kidnapped Jaycee Dugard in backyard outbuildings.  

Is the expenditure of funds and other resources effective in preventing child sexual abuse? Empirical evidence says no. Those who are not on the registry but rather in the victims’ lives as trusted family members, peers, or authority figures commit, on average, 95% of all child sexual abuse; the younger the child, the higher the percentage. 

And of the up to 5% who are strangers or barely-known acquaintances, only an extremely small percentage are on the registry for a previous sexual offense. 

Are such visits to registrants disruptive to their lives to the point of interfering with successful rehabilitation? Do they negatively influence community opinions to the point of making successful re-entry extremely difficult? 

That one can be answered with another question: How could they not? 

Rehabilitation is a criminal justice goal equal to if not surpassing punishment in importance. Smart policing furthers that goal. Studies show that the longer a person with a previous sexual offense, for which he was convicted and punished, lives in the community with no further offense, the less of a risk he is to re-offend going forward. 

California’s own Sex Offender Management Board supports this position, stating (page 2) “The longer a sex offender remains offense free in the community, the less likely he is to reoffend.”  

Public resources are limited and must be expended as suggested by empirical evidence. We can no longer continue practices that may earn the approval of the public but do not further the goal of protecting the community, especially those that fail in the goal of protecting our children from harm.

Friday, December 15, 2017

When will "Me too" become "Everybody too"?

Jan, a junior executive for a large company, was seeking approval for a new project. She was learning how essential it was to have the friendship and support of the more senior and influential company executives. Therefore, when Ted, one of those important and influential persons, made teasing comments to her about her physical attributes and flirted and joked about a sexual assignation with her, she took it in stride, smiled, and even flirted back a little. 

That was twenty years ago. Jan is no longer with that company, but Ted is, now even more senior. Jan has realized, along with countless other persons, primarily women, that Ted’s comments and behavior were inappropriate and actually amounted to sexual harassment.

Swept along with the backlash against harassment by those in positions of power, she reported Ted’s past behavior to his company and in the media. She was applauded for her courage in “coming forward” and “speaking out.”

No criminal charges were expected, of course. Ted hadn’t broken any laws, and even if he had, the statute of limitations had expired. He had just been a bit of a chauvinist pig. He wasn’t even sure that he remembered Jan or his behavior with her.

None of that mattered to the company. The board of directors fired him almost immediately.

A very familiar story, it is repeating itself over and over. The basic elements don’t vary: a man (almost always) in a position of power; a woman (almost always) hoping to do well in the company or the profession; many years later accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior on his part and helplessness on hers; his very quick firing/removal/canceling of contract by the company.

So what’s the problem?

Was he actually guilty? Only he and she know. Why did she wait so long to speak up? It doesn’t matter. He isn’t being charged with a crime. There are a few people here and there raising a stink about due process and innocent until proven guilty, but no one seems to be paying attention. One writer said that innocent until proven guilty is a legal concept, not a societal one.

The fact that it is a constitutional one seems irrelevant. But if we are willing to change the rules in the absence of legal action, how soon will we be willing to change them within the legal context? This may be the very definition of the slippery slope.

Will this run its course, causing enough concern for enough people that some actual pushback occurs?

Or will others, emboldened, see the perfect way to get rid of unpleasant co-workers, grumpy and demanding supervisors, or others they just don’t like?

What could be easier? Make a few accusations to top management, go public if necessary, and problem solved. How can he prove he didn’t say that to you over the water cooler? 

What’s important is that you don’t have to prove he did.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Sex offenders need not apply

How many times, when reading about virtually anything, has the phrase, “No one with a conviction for a sex offense is eligible,” or “No registered sex offenders allowed,” been part of the narrative?

In everything from voting in some states to being eligible for many government and criminal justice programs to seeking shelter in emergency situations, those who are called sex offenders by virtue of being on the registry are excluded.

The latest to cross my desk is this, “VCU offers chance for jail inmates to ‘write way
out,’ ” about a program being offered by Virginia Commonwealth University.

The program sounds great. Its goal? "To help offenders 'figure out a way to live a better life, a life that keeps them out of the criminal justice system, a life in which they’re proud of what they’re doing, where they’ve discovered a new life purpose or just kind of figured out those self-sabotaging behaviors that create a lot of pain in their own life and in the lives of others.' ”


A secondary outcome is that those in the class, inmate and non-inmate alike, learn  “how to respect one another in their very diverse struggles.”

The program offers something that is not normally found in the more traditional crime to conviction to punishment path: introspection and hope. To be eligible, applicants must be able to read and write and want to break the cycle of criminal offending.

Oh, and they cannot be incarcerated for a sex offense – any sexual offense – or a violent felony or burglary.

Why is this program not available to those who have committed non-violent sexual offenses?

Would sexual offenders benefit from figuring out a better way to live? From figuring out self-sabotaging behaviors? From understanding the pain they have created for themselves and for their victims? It sounds like a page out of a sex-offender therapy manual, one of the actually good ones.

Do those who have committed sexual offenses need to learn how to respect themselves and others? Do they need introspection and hope? Can they read and write?

What are we saying when we close off these sorts of opportunities to those who may need it most of all? What message do we send? We don’t want you to figure out a better way to live? We don’t want you to understand how your behavior caused pain? We don’t want you to have self-respect or respect for others or hope?

Everything about being on the registry says those things already, and the registry is not working, has never worked, and will never work in any positive way, not for those on it nor for society in general.

If having understanding of one’s own behavior and having self-respect and having hope are desirable goals, why do we withhold this opportunity from those on the sex offender registry JUST because they are on the sex offender registry?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Do sentenced sex offenders deserve special mistreatment in prison?

Closing our eyes to prisoner abuse must stop

Prisons are not supposed to be fun or pleasant. They are designed for restrictions and punishment intended to bring about rehabilitation.

They are not intended to facilitate, even encourage, vigilante activities against those whom other prisoners choose to mistreat.

Men in prison for convictions involving sexual offenses are often considered “fair game” for mistreatment and violence, and all too often prison personnel appear to turn a blind eye to this.

Speculation is already dominating the reports of Ben McCormick’s conviction for child pornography and what will await him if he ends up behind bars. The irony in the situation is that, while a reporter for A Current Affair, McCormick was instrumental in exposing sit-com star Robert Hughes and for Hughes’ subsequent trial, conviction, and incarceration for child sexual abuse. 

Reports of the mistreatment visited upon Hughes are only exceeded by the speculation that the same fate or worse awaits McCormick if he is imprisoned. Reporters euphemistically speak of the “prison welcome” given to Hughes, a welcome in which inmates hurled at him their own feces and urine that they had saved up in milk cartons the first time he entered the prison yard.

Were there guards and other prison personnel who knew the inmates were hoarding their bodily wastes for this purpose? No one is even asking the question. And while this treatment is mild compared to the sexual violence, rapes, and murders that those convicted of sexual crimes fall victim to behind bars, no one is asking those questions either.

There are no statistics. No one knows how many instances of sexual violence prisoners are subjected to. It is not a horror that is visited only upon those convicted of sexual crimes, but they are without a doubt singled out especially for such treatment.

And what of beatings, of maimings, of murders? Prison is a violent place. People in prison are violent people. These things are bound to happen. As far as those who commit sexual crimes receiving more than their “fair share” of such treatment, it is “jail-house justice.” Even other criminals won’t “tolerate” those who sexually abuse children. It’s bound to happen.

But it should not happen because those who should and could prevent it are closing their eyes and tacitly enabling it to happen.

Those who harm others should be punished. The punishment should not put them in positions where others who are also being punished feel free to turn a prison sentence into a sentence of torture or a sentence of death. Those who do that are proving their criminality yet again.

And also earning the title of criminals are the prison officials who shut their eyes. Their refusal to see does not excuse them from their culpability. We must demand that they be held accountable.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The cruelest cut of all

I started this blog as a means by which to comment on and question a segment of our criminal justice system, that which deals with crimes of a sexual nature. I saw then and see even more clearly today how far from reality these laws and practices are, how far from fact-based, how damaging rather than rehabilitating, how life-destroying rather than healing.

I have not previously used this forum to discuss or deal with any personal involvement in the issue. It is said that for every "not ever," there is an exception. This is mine.

A person close to me, a person I will call Lee, was adjudicated for a sexual crime, inappropriate sexual behavior, almost nine years ago. The victim was an older teenager and Lee was in a position of authority. The victim was sexually aggressive and coercive. Lee was the adult, knew better, and was wrong. It was a one-time situation, and they were caught.

Lee's probationary conditions are standard for one-size-fits-all sex offender management.

Ten years of probation.
No contact with anyone under the age of 18, not even young family members.
No internet access except for job searches and for work itself.
No going out of the county, not even just across the county line for a family gathering following Lee's sister's funeral. Lee was allowed to attend the funeral; it was in the county Lee is confined to.
Mandated sex offender "therapy" sessions once a week, every week, for ten years.

Lee has and has always had mental health issues: medically diagnosed depression and anxiety; poor decision making and coping skills; very little self-confidence in spite of a great deal of talent and ability. Lee is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

Lee has always had difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships. The publicity surrounding the sexual offense destroyed hopes of having a normal social life. Career in ruins, other attempts at jobs were futile. One was denied by probation because it was on the same block as a building that served as a children's theater.

Family gatherings were denied because Lee's siblings had young children, infants and toddlers--nieces and nephews to whom Lee had been close.

Church was denied until Lee disclosed the crime to the congregational leader, something Lee was too ashamed to do.

Lee's only outlet was and is the weekly "therapy" session.

I cannot use the word "therapy" in context with this treatment without enclosing it in quotation marks. Whatever definition the word "therapy" conveys does not exist among the state-sanctioned, mandated sex offender treatment models in the state where Lee lives. Every single session focuses on the vileness and the guilt of the attendees. One assignment required Lee to list 40 people who were affected by Lee's offense and to write an essay for each of the 40 detailing all of the ways that person was or could have been harmed by the offense. If the group leader felt the account was not thorough enough, it had to be redone with Lee imagining even more ways the offense might possibly have hurt the person.

Lee's mental health has declined not just significantly but dramatically. Any attempts to seek outside therapy, even autism-specific therapy, were denied by the treatment group on the grounds that it might "un-do" the work they were doing.

Any attempts to be released early from probation were shot down by the judge who yelled at Lee from the bench that sex offenders didn't get early release in her court.

Any appeals to the probation officer resulted in an automatic repetition of what the treatment provider had said.

Over the years Lee has become more and more isolated, desperate, and suicidal. The end of the year, with Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and family gatherings that cannot be attended, exacerbates Lee's depression and isolation.

The "therapy" group, the one place where sharing of negative feelings and the offering of positive support should be a given, is the opposite. Lee knows that such sharing of negative feelings and fears invites the reinforcement of them: one who has committed a sexual crime should be depressed.

The thing that should be helpful is the most hurtful. And that is surely, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the cruelest cut of all.

Monday, November 20, 2017

It's time to stop and think about accusations from years gone by

Something is happening in this nation that should cause serious concern to every American.

It is being praised by many as being an incredible break-through, something whose time has finally come; and it bestows on those who are speaking out the status of brave heros – or heroines – for opening the floodgates.

And those who have serious reservations aren’t saying much of anything. Why not?

They know all too well the fate that awaits them if they do, the sneers, the looks, the accusations, the hateful comments. Rape apologist. Aiding and abetting the enemy. Victim-blamer.

And there’s something else. Deep in the heart of everyone who is thinking, “Wait a minute; slow down; this has the potential to destroy so many innocent,” there is the knowledge that some of it is true. People in power have, without doubt, used that power to extract sexual favors from those with less power. It is an abhorrent and vile truth.

But does that justify jumping on every bandwagon that leaves the starting gate and assuming the worst about every person, celebrity or not, about whom an accusation is made?

Accusations of this sort are the most insidious of all. Accuse an innocent man of stealing company funds, and when the true culprit is caught, he is exonerated; his reputation and life are not destroyed. Someone made a mistake in accusing him, and that mistake was righted.

Accuse an innocent man of making improper sexual advances, of molestation, of rape, and there is no exoneration. He is judged guilty even if the charges are never proved, even if there is never a conviction. He just got away with it. Those in power cover up for their friends. He's got money; he bought his way out. Where there is smoke, there is fire. When two or five or ten women accuse the same man, it has to be true.

Does it?

There is something about this that reminds me of the psychology of mob mentality.

Men who are celebrities are, by definition, high profile targets. Saying something happened fifteen or thirty or forty years ago is such as easy thing to do. If someone else has already said it, it is even easier. It spreads like wildfire.

So what should we do? Should we just close our eyes and allow real abuse to continue? No. But should we slow down and have a conversation about how easy it would be, how easy it is, to destroy someone who is innocent? Should we recognize that this is a bandwagon that people are being encouraged to jump on? Should we at least talk about the part that is played by the emergence of the “social justice warrior” movement and the new feminism, a feminism that appears to seek not fairness and equality but domination and even revenge?

Should we recognize that, with this issue, a highly cherished constitutional protection is disappearing right before our eyes? The burden of proof has always been on the accuser, on the state. That is shifting and morphing more every day, with every accusation. Each person accused feels the burden to prove he did not do such a thing. That has terrifying implications, not only for those accused of crimes of a sexual nature but for those accused of any crime.

And in attempting to prove innocence, is anyone talking about the sheer impossibility of proving a negative, especially one alleged to have occurred decades ago? Or for those not so innocent, the impossibility of mounting a legal defense when the accusations are from another lifetime ago?

No one is having these conversations, but should we?

We must. Otherwise, who is safe? Not your father, not your husband, not your son, not your friend.

Not you.

I'm Baaack

Due to other demands on my time and my talents, such as they are, I have severely neglected this blog. I have recently been admonished for doing so by a dear colleague whose thoughts I value highly, and I was easily persuaded to return . So, for what it's worth, posts by Shelly Stow will again be going forth. I hope that there remain at least a few readers who will help me put this back together, and I thank them in advance.

And here we go.....

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Truth in sex offender headlines? Really?

According to this article posted March 22, 46 registered sex offenders in Florida cannot be located by law enforcement. The headline, “21 sex offenders unaccounted for in Palm Beach County,” is designed as click-bait with the point being that almost half of the “absconded” registrants in the state are in one county.

I propose a new headline, one that would possibly not attract the same readership but one that would be more accurate and factual.

According to the Sexual Predator Unit for the state of Florida, as of  3/23/2017, Florida had 69,842 persons registered on its sex offender registry.*

The headline I propose is, “In Florida, 69,796* registered sex offenders are exactly where they are supposed to be and doing what they are supposed to be doing.”

Of course, with Florida’s harsh “scorched earth” policy resulting in residency restrictions that leave thousands of the state’s registrants living under bridges, in the woods, and in parking lots, where they are “supposed to be” and what they are “supposed to be doing” is living in conditions to which we do not subject our pets.

But I digress.

Think how much better it would be if our headlines reflected the positive rather than the negative, or even just included the full facts. Rather than “Deschutes County issues alert for missing sex offender,” how about, “Deschutes County issues alert for missing sex offender and thanks the other 239 for being in compliance.” Instead of “Two registered sex offenders in nursing homes committed new assaults,” we read, “9,000 [estimated] registered sex offenders in nursing homes are model patients.”

Will that ever happen? Nah.
But it’s nice to dream, isn’t it?

* Original numbers edited after I heard back from the state of Florida.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

No validity for keeping those on sex offender registry from state parks

"What is the point in doing everything right for years when it counts for nothing? Where is the incentive? What I did was wrong, but that was 15 years ago. I'm not the same person I was when I was 19...My oldest is 9, and I've had to explain it to her -- why we can't go to a lake, why there's no point in our getting a boat. She understands as well as she can at her age."

Shawna is a mother of three. She is on the public registry in Oklahoma for life for a one-time sexual encounter on her 19th birthday with a 14-year-old boy. Her court-ordered punishment was a jail sentence, which she served, and lifetime probation and sex offender treatment. She is also serving an additional life sentence on the public sex offender registry, one whose requirements can shift and change depending on the whims of legislators and new laws. Since it is not considered punishment, applying conditions retroactively is apparently not a problem.

Oklahoma, where Shawna, her husband, and their three children live, is one of only three states defining “parks” to include public state parks and with a state-wide law forbidding park usage, access, or loitering to some or all who are required to be on a sex offender registry. The other two are Louisiana and Illinois. A fourth, Tennessee, couches its language ambiguously, saying that such access is prohibited “…when the offender has reason to believe children under eighteen (18) years of age are present…”

Oklahoma extends the definition of “park” far beyond children’s playgrounds, parks, and areas whose primary use is intended to be by children, the definition adhered to by other states with presence restrictions and by all individual counties and cities with similar ordinances. In Oklahoma, Illinois, and Louisiana, a park is a park is a park, and state parks are included. All access to lakes, beaches, and waterways are state parks.

Oklahoma passed its law in 2014, twelve years after Shawna was ordered to register on the Megan’s Law registry as a level 3 offender, an automatic designation when the victim, even a statutory one, is under 16.

Another Oklahoma registrant, writing a comment on a With Justice for All blog, said, “I was surprised that here in Oklahoma, I cannot go to a park. A park does not mean a place with swings and playground equipment... it means ANY park, State Park included. I really wanted to buy a boat, and I can, but I would have no place in Oklahoma to use it.”

The state of criminal justice reform as it applies to those required to register as sex offenders is very much in flux. While some jurisdictions and states recognize that no evidence supports residency and presence restriction as effective and either eschew or overturn such requirements, others are rushing to implement them.

In North Carolina such and other restrictions have become so onerous that National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws (NARSOL) and NC-RSOL have filed a suit against the state on constitutional grounds.

A fourth of the states follow what research clearly shows as the most beneficial to public safety, making serious efforts to integrate law-abiding former sex offenders into their communities by placing no restrictions on where they may live, work, or go with their families. The majority of the other states range widely in the restrictions and requirements they place on their registered citizens.

Only three – Oklahoma, Illinois, and Louisiana – have taken steps to assure that children with a parent on the sex offender registry will not enjoy, as a family, the wonders and beauty that their state’s national parks offer to all citizens and the educational value of their state’s historical monuments – all, that is, except those who are punished beyond reason and with no safety justification all the days of their lives for crimes committed far in their pasts. Those like Shawna.