Warehousing Sex Offenders

Hartford is home to 10 percent of Connecticut's registered sex offenders, and the city doesn't like it one bit. A recent news story reports that 537 sex offenders live within the city's 18 square mile. With all those sex offenders you'd expect a libidinal tidal wave to overtake the city. Here's the story as reported in the New Haven Advocate: http://newhavenadvocate.com/article.cfm?aid=15611.

I am not sure what to make of this reporting, and, am, frankly, disappointed in the Advocate. It simply went surfing on the surface of statistical date without asking what the data meant.

How many of the folks on the list are registered for consensual status offenses such as statutory rape? How many of the folks on the list are present for crimes of violence? The ratio would shed light on whether Hartford residents at risk.

But of course we get no such statistics. A sex offender, is a sex offender, is a sex offender. The same scarlet brush paints them all with the same hysterical exclamation point. And, what's worse, Connecticut just passed a new law requiring enhanced notification of neighbors when an offender takes up residence. Why is it unlawful to cry "fire" in a movie house, but permissible to fan even more dangerous hysteria by screaming "sex offender"?

There are hidden gems in the story. For example, probationers are typically forbidden to live near children. Where, exactly, is such a place to be found in a crowded city? Many sex offenders resort to living in homeless shelters. And if such a shelter cannot be found, or will not take the person in, then the probationer is deemed in violation of the law. I've had clients who slept on factory floors or under a bridge because of their designation as a sex offender. A separate arrest and incarceration follows those with no fixed addresses in some jurisdictions. (I am told, however, that in some states reason prevails: An offender with no place to go can simply list a park bench. I'd like confirmation of this anecdote from someone with specific knowledge.)

The public fears recidivism. Yet we create conditions in which recidivism is encouraged. Studies indicate that the key to avoiding repeat offending is reintegration in the community and elimination of the sort of asocial and anti-social that prompt some folks to deviate from lawful norms.

So what do we do? We crowd sex offenders in what amounts to substandard ghettos, where they huddle with one another, scorned and rejected by a culture whipped into an undiscriminating frenzy. One shelter in Hartford is home to 29 registered offenders. Do you think cramming these poor souls together yields reintegration? Or might it just reinforce deviance?

I am puzzled by the great rush to classify ever more Americans as sex offenders. Until recently, there was no such epidemic of misplaced desire. We are now either criminalizing what has always been present, and creating new outcasts, or there is something astir that yields new levels of deviance as yet unforeseen. Whatever the cause of these new arrests, it is clear that the criminal justice system and social service system is failing.

Several years ago, Connecticut allocated $3 million to create housing for released sex offenders. That money disappeared in a bad economy. But the sex offenders did not. So where are these folks going? Wherever they can.

It's a national disgrace.

Also listed under: Sex Offenders and Justice


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