The Trouble with Sexual Offender Programs

One of the most contentions and inflammatory of crimes is a sexual attack.  Furthermore, sexual predators deservedly occupy the lowest of all possible rungs on the ladder of criminality.  Recently laws intended to protect citizens from sex offenders have gotten increasingly restrictive and harsh.  The public and even celebrity support for these measures incite their continuing use.  However, upon closer examination, many problems exist with these laws, keeping others from seeking more successful sexual offender treatment programs.

Sex offenders, like other criminals, generally fall in to categories as exemplified by their general characteristics.  The overwhelming majority of them are male.  Close to 74% of these males are white.  The average age of sex offenders is in the mid forties with the majority falling between ages 30 and 69.  Their victims are generally of all ages from toddlers to the elderly, with over 90% of these victims being female (CITE TEXT BOOK HERE AND ADD TO WORKS CITED PAGE).

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One of the first types of supposed sex offender programs does not even involve treatment for the sex offender.  Instead, it is a type of program focused on protecting society not rehabilitating the offender.  While this should be one in the same, this program seems to be more punitive than protective or rehabilitative.

Nobody doubts the necessity of certain protections for society. Megan’s Law, named for a young girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a neighbor who had offended twice before, is a type of sexual offender registration act (SORA) which requires recently released sex offenders to register with their local police departments.  These registries are open to the public’s scrutiny and many times appear on the internet.  Other SORAs prohibit sex offenders from living within a certain distance from a school, daycare, park, library, or other recreational areas where children frequent.  These “residency restrictions are justified as a means of taking away a portion of the opportunity for sex offenders to re-offend” and for putting “a face on sex offenders, so they can no longer prey as strangers on the most vulnerable members of society” (Durling, 2006).

Two problems exist with this “program.”  First, they violate the civil rights of the offender, and second, they lull society into a false sense of security.  Albeit sex offenders may not be deserving of rights in the view of many, they are entitled to them under the US Constitution.  First, once an offender establishes residence, he may be forced to move if a school, daycare, etc. is built; one man was forced to move out of his mother’s home.   Tragically, some sex offenders are even murdered by individuals seeking to rid society of these blights.  In Main, one man killed two sex offenders that he identified via a popular website (Durling 2006).

However, the most serious problem with registry programs is that they do not accomplish the intended goal.  This is true for two reasons. First, most sex offenders do not target unknown neighbor children.  As Durling (2006) suggests, “the image of the stranger sex offender harming neighborhood children is far from reality.” Numerous studies have shown overwhelmingly that this is the case.  Sexual assault and abuse occur often from complete strangers in less than 10% of cases; the abuse typically occurs from relatives, friends, babysitters, coaches, teachers or other adults whom the victims trust or perceive to have authority over them.  These statistics reach about 80% for abused girls and 60% for abused boys.  This has led criminology and psychology experts to conclude that these residency restrictions “do more harm than good, as they lull the public into a false sense of security from stranger sex offenders when the vast majority of predators meet their victims through jobs, volunteering, or social networks” (Durling, 2006).

Furthermore, most psychologists agree that sexual offenders who are determined to re-offend will do so.  However, some statistics of recidivism rates among sexual offenders have been over-inflated.  In 1994, only 14% of sexual offenders in prisons were repeat offenders.  Also in 1994, only 3% of released offenders were rearrested within three years.  Most of the re-arrest figures only not the re-arrest, not the charge.  Of the thirty-nine percent of the released sex offenders who are rearrested, the majority are not rearrested for sexual offenses, but for issues like parole violations and traffic incidents.  When compared with those that commit property and drug crimes, whose recidivism rates are 68-74% and 50-67% respectively, sex offenders to do re-offend at the previous asserted high rate.

Another unfortunate negative aspect of SORAs happens to the community.  The local governments must create sufficient housing for these individuals, which, to be in accordance with SORAs, can cost up to $17 million dollars.  For example, Iowa’s two thousand foot restriction makes entire communities off limits to sex offenders. While on the surface, this seems like excellent news for the community, the financial burden on the state affects everyone.  First, the areas that the offenders can legally live in usually see a reduction of resale rates and values of available property.  This places an economic burden on those people that live there, generally the lower socio-economic group or more outlying, rural communities where schools are fewer and farther between.  This has created entire communities of so-called misfits:

Already in Illinois, sex offenders are massing in the 60628 zip code on the Far South Side of Chicago. This poor, primarily black area now houses more than one tenth of the state’s paroled offenders, who often live in boarding houses that are willing to accommodate them in large numbers. The ACLU thus concluded, “while ‘herding former offenders into penal colonies may help get politicians re-elected,… it is a poor use of law enforcement dollars. The unfortunate families who happen to live in the few areas where these former offenders can live aren’t too thrilled about it either (Durling, 2006).

It doesn’t seem that these laws are accomplishing their intended goal and may be exacerbating the problem.

Even facilities like group homes, which are closely monitored, are finding it hard to establish residence.  In Kansas, where sexual predators are required to live in this type of group home for a period of time after prison release, is having trouble establishing locations for these facilities.  The Kansas state supreme court ruled that counties could file legal paperwork seeking injunctions against the building of these facilities which are designed to rehabilitate offenders.  As a result, these offenders do not get the help they need.  In a horrible Catch-22, these transitional housing groups have had a very difficult time finding a permanent location in which to offer stable work and transitional and counseling services to its residents.  Nevertheless, under the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, these arrangements must be made (

In fact, these restrictions may prevent the offender from seeking help at all.  New Hampshire’s chief parole and probation officer argues that these offenders adjust to life outside of prison better when they can find support in jobs, their families, social events, churches and group meetings for addicts.  However, these SORAs serve to prevent their attendance at these locations and even “may instead lead to banished sex offenders coming to believe that their essential identity is as a sex offender, which then stimulates re-offense (Durling, 2006).

Perhaps the biggest problem of all is the attention and focus this process takes away from finding newer and better treatment programs for offenders.  Most programs have focused on tallying and observing the behaviors of offenders as if they were zoo animals.  Luckily, recent types of qualitative designs have incorporated the offenders views into the program.  On such study is known as the HM Prison Service Sex Offender Treatment Programme.  Here the emphasis in treatment is not on computing figures of recidivism and limiting the offender’s geographic reach to a few square miles which only contain poor people’s children, but on the very views and attitudes of the people that the programs are trying to help (Wakeling, Webster, & Mann, 2005).

This idea is not a new one: as early as the 1990s, sex offenders have been polled as to the effectiveness of their treatments (Pribyl, 1998; Martin, 1997). Many important issues arose from these research studies which focused on the following factors as important to the perceived ability to be rehabilitated which include the following:

§  increased awareness of the connection between thoughts, feelings and behavior

§  the fear of consequences

§  victim empathy

In addition, these studies discovered things that impeded successful treatment which centered primarily around negative therapist characteristics and therapeutic qualities (Wakeling, Webster, & Mann, 2005).  The HM Prison Sex Offender Treatment Programme routinely assessed the offenders’ attitudes through questioning techniques and discovered that in answering these questions, offenders benefited in areas such as self-development, positive future outlook, understanding of their crime, victim empathy, coping mechanisms, and awareness of others.  They also noted that the group dynamic and the tutors’ interaction helped them in the process (Wakeling, Webster, & Mann, 2005).  This success points to the need for more accessible programs such as this one to help offenders not further stigmatize them.

While helping such an egregious criminal is not on the top of many people’s to do lists, saving people from further victimization should be.  Simply listing, categorizing and funneling offenders into poor and remote areas is not accomplishing this goal.  It is only providing a false sense of security while allowing for not only the victimization of other human beings, but also pushing them even closer to reoffending.  Instead, program models like the HM Prison project should be implemented which allow offenders to take more responsibility and accountability for their actions through open dialogues and honest self-assessments.  Only then can safety and security prevail.