Going home: Even sex offenders should be allowed to rejoin society

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By Charles Wohlforth . . . The good news is that Alaska’s sex offender treatment program works. The bad news is that a shortage of providers creates a many-months-long waiting list that traps sex offenders from rural Alaska in Anchorage, sometimes homeless.

With 250 sex offenders coming out of Alaska prisons annually, 45 percent of them Native, this is a public safety threat and a humanitarian fiasco. We must do better.

The popular belief that sex offenders cannot reform is false. Sex offenders are much less likely to commit a new crime after prison than other criminals. In Alaska, their rate of re-arrest for sex crimes after four years is only 3 percent, according to Department of Corrections data.

After going through Alaska’s model of long-term cognitive-behavioral therapy, high-risk sex offenders eventually become no more likely than a typical member of the public to commit a new sex offense, according to a department white paper. Low-risk offenders reach that point on the day they are released from prison.

Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the country. The problem is worst in rural Alaska. Most sex crimes are against children.

Victims suffer more deeply and for longer than the rest of us can possibly imagine. I accept and affirm their lasting pain and the belief of many victims that the men who did this to them should suffer just as much.

But that cannot be society’s primary goal. It is more important to avoid future crimes, even if speeding treatment and letting offenders get stable jobs and homes may look like mercy.

Some of the Alaska Native sex offenders I met at the nonprofit Partners for Progress Re-entry Center seemed sincerely sorry and eager to make amends. No purpose is served by putting them on the streets.

Grace Harrington, a case worker at the center for the last three years, said her clients have made her believe in humanity in a new way.

“I thought I understood what sex offenses meant when I started working here,” she said. “My mind has been changed because of the human beings that I’ve met and the interactions that I’ve had and the empathy that’s grown. Because I truly believe in human rights, and I do believe in human beings changing, and I’ve seen it with my eyes.”

Whether sexual predators can change their deviant drives may be doubtful. But therapy can stop them from acting on those impulses by teaching them to think morally.

Laura Brooks, Corrections’ deputy director of Health and Rehabilitation Services, recently explained the department’s successful containment model at the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission’s Sex Offender Work Group. The commission is looking at sex offense laws at the request of the Legislature.

The model uses long-term monitoring of parolees, including polygraph tests, combined with therapy that focuses on changing their criminal thinking patterns through discussion and workbooks. The therapy can last two years and the waiting list to begin is as long as six months.

Commissioner of Corrections Dean Williams said the department has been unable to find enough therapy providers and polygraph administrators to keep up with the need for treatment.

This is a good place to invest.

Read the rest of this opinion in Alaska Dispatch News.

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