Time to decide: Will we settle for “feel-good” laws?

Originally published at the Times-Union, Albany, New York 11/30/21

Reprinted in full with permission.

By Sandy . . . Approximately 180,000 individuals are incarcerated in the United States for a sexual crime. The offenses range from violent rape to exhibitionism.

The vast majority will be released into the community to complete the sentence under probation or parole with some having served the full sentence inside. All will be required to register with their state’s sexual offense registry.

Upon release these persons are expected to secure living accommodations and employment. They are expected to effect successful community re-entry, including not reoffending.

The vast majority succeed at the latter. Various studies have arrived at different numbers, but a success rate of 95% is the generally agreed upon, across-the-board recidivism number.

The success rate for securing employment and a place to live is a different story. In some places, crippling restrictions on where those on the registry can live and work undo rehabilitative initiatives. New York does not have these per se, although, according to a Times Union piece, some courts have interpreted a law forbidding entrance to school or child care properties as somehow also applying to living accommodations in proximity to those places.

Neighbors living in areas where registrants have moved have found other ways to keep these “undesirables” from their midst. They protest, sometimes in vigilante fashion. They create petitions. They go to the media or to local politicians or law enforcement and make noise.

This is what members of a Glenville neighborhood did, and they succeeded at driving the man on the registry out of his home and their neighborhood. The online petition relies on fear tactics and lies, stating that the offender “is amongst the highest rates for Residivsm (sic) which means he will most likely offend again . . . We need to remove him before he strikes again.”

Both the town police chief and the state department of corrections verified that the registrant was in every way compliant with his regulations, breaking no laws, and entitled to be treated the same as every other citizen.

The community’s actions were based on fear born of ignorance.

The man they drove away had a conviction of criminal sexual contact with a boy he knew. Virtually all sexual crime committed against children and teens is committed by persons known and trusted by the victims. These persons are usually family members, authority figures, or peers.

Those who were instrumental in harassing this man from his home were practicing the worst kind of “NIMBY-ism – “Not in My Back Yard.” They were ignoring every shred of evidence about child sexual abuse. They either don’t know or don’t care that their relatives and close friends, that they themselves, are statistically at almost a hundred times greater risk of sexually abusing their children than is this stranger.

They either don’t know or don’t care that their actions are in direct opposition to all evidence showing that stability and community connectiveness are essential for and maximize successful rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, a New York state senator is attempting to codify extended restrictions on where persons on the registry may live and be. Does he know that every study done on the effectiveness of distance restrictions for registrants shows this to be bad public policy, not only failing to accomplish anything positive but often creating a host of negative consequences?

Every time neighbors harass a registrant into leaving his home, they make society less safe. Every time legislators or city councils block a registrant’s access to a decent place to live, from employment opportunities, or from needed services, they make society less safe.

It’s time to decide: Do we want “feel-good” laws, or do we want to do what actually works in creating a safer society?