The war on sex offenders makes sense only within a large historical context. My generation grew up practicing air raid drills in classrooms where the teachers made us crawl under our desks in case the real thing took out Cleveland or Buffalo. Neighbors were stocking their bomb shelters with canned goods and ammunition. We lived through the Cuban Missile crisis unsure if hour by hour the human race would survive.
There was a doomsday pressure on everyone. Sen. Joseph McCarthy tapped into it to wield as much power as President Eisenhower for a brief time. His aggressive Senate hearings on Un-American activities blackballed dozens of alleged communists in labor unions and Hollywood. Even a Pulitzer Prize winner like Arthur Miller fell into temporary disgrace.
The Colonists hanged 20 accused witches in Salem in 1692 and crushed another under tons of stone. Consorting with the devil was a sexual offense in those days. The judges and juries were dealing with huge stress from failed crops and the fear of Indian raids.
Now we have reached the depth of a great recession that rivals the one 80 years ago for its high unemployment and social unrest. Joblessness on this scale contributed to the widespread inner city riots in the 1960s and 1970s. The same misery, but worse, fueled the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin a generation earlier. People are scared that way now. They want vengeance and safety.
We have started the second decade of a war on terror that may never end and knows few traditional limits. We watch Iran and North Korea try to join the short list of nations with the unilateral power to trigger the war to end all wars. Every few months some anonymous stranger guns down a dozen strangers. We all feel that carnage in the intimacy of the quarter hourly internet news cycle as if it happened next door. We want to save ourselves from so many threats. We want to lash out at them. The quickest, easiest way to do that is symbolically.
So we register sex offenders as surrogate terrorists and post their personal information as if it were bin Laden’s bio on the Internet for everyone to see. Failure to report to police on a quarterly basis earns a sex offender a new felony charge. We ban them from living near schools, daycare centers and school bus stops with draconian penalties for violations. We civilly commit them when they finish their prison terms. We make sure those are long sentences by stacking charges in multiple consecutive bids. Each image of child on hard drive becomes a separate felony. We give sex offenders special license plates. The police notify the neighbors when a sex offender moves in nearby. The neighbors evict them, or force the landlords to do it for them, sometimes subtly, sometimes with raw violence.
Eight years ago Lawrence Trant stabbed a registered sex offender in Concord, NH, and tried to burn down two apartment buildings that housed seven sex offenders and an equal number of non-offenders. Police found a hit list in the assailant’s apartment he had gleaned from the sex offender public registry. The names of his intended victims were checked off in red.
“I hope I’ve done a service to the community,” Trant told the Boston Globe during an interview from prison. “These guys are sexual terrorists.”
On a hot night three years later a mob chanting, “skinner, skinner,” burned a scarecrow on the wooden porch of registered sex offender Gloria Huot. She was away from her home in Manchester, NH, but her female roommate watched the whole thing with her two teenage sons and an infant she was babysitting in their three-unit apartment building. A few days later a sex offender vigilante website posted these remarks about Huot, still available at http://www.forums.militarystangs.com/archive/index.php/t-6133.html.
“pervs deserve to pay the price for the rest of their lifes – whatever that price may be. if its just humiliation and a little bit of harassment, i’d say they should consider themselves lucky” Smokin’Red35th
“wow this is why these fah-kers need to die.” Bobbys97R
Stephen Marshall, a vigilante from Nova Scotia, executed two registered sex offenders in Maine in 2006 before killing himself on a bus in Massachusetts surrounded by police. Like Trant, he found his victims on the Internet registry. One of them, William Elliot, had slept with a girlfriend a few days shy of the legal age of consent in Maine when he was in high school.
Samuel Lane, the former police chief in Pembroke, NH, used to teach sex offender safety workshops for the volunteers in his Neighborhood Watch program. “Sex offenders often have multiple victims,” Lane told a group of scared parents a couple of years ago. “It’s not uncommon for them to have one victim while grooming another and deciding two others are too old now.”
He projected a collage of mug shots of local sex offenders he compiled from images on the State Police website. “Doesn’t that guy in the middle look like a troll?” the chief asked. “We have 21 of these guys in Pembroke right now. It’s near the prison in Concord and two halfway houses. Theyhave a low cure rate and a high recidivism rate. They’re wired wrong.”
Jennifer Frank, a campus police detective at Plymouth State University, has been teaching similar workshops on Internet safety at high schools and middle schools around New England for several years. In 2010 she displayed student Facebook pages in front of the Cawley Middle School in Hooksett, NH, including half a dozen images belonging to the children of registered sex offenders.
Then she posted their fathers’ Internet mug pages from the sex offender registry. The students picked up on the linkage right away. Charles Littlefield, the Hooksett superintendent, told me the children of offenders were “traumatized.” Steve Harrises, the Cawley principal, said he was “blindsided” by the assembly.
Something worse happened when Frank went to Fall Mountain High School. She outed the victims of local offenders. Steve Fortier, a school parent who is not a sex offender, gave this testimony about the event at a legislative hearing a few months later.
“Many of the sex offenders whose information was shown are family members of teens who were sitting in the audience,” Fortier said of Det. Frank in written testimony. “Because most youth sexual abuse is committed by a family member or someone else known by the victim, there was an even more troubling consequence. Many of the victims of the sex offenders were watching the assembly. This re-traumatization, including the stigma associated with being a teen sexual abuse victim, was, in my opinion, not worth whatever gains were made through the assembly.”
Other Fall Mountain parents have told me kids ran out crying and stayed away from school for days. When I called Jennifer Frank to get her side of the issue, she said her workshops protect children from the dangers of the Internet. She also said she uses only material readily available to the public. Her boss, Col. Creig Doyle, stood by her work.
There is a far better way to help sex offenders rejoin society and avoid recidivism. The Canadians keep a nonpublic sex offender registry for the police to use in solving crimes. There is no Internet shaming roster. And they do a superb job helping sex offenders find jobs, apartments and a support system.
The Mennonites in Canada arguably lead the way in rehabilitating and mentoring the most dangerous sex offenders. Their program model is called Circles of Support and Accountability, and it serves the kind of people California, Kansas and New Hampshire would civilly commit after they finish their prison terms. It’s the worst of the very worst.
A 2007 study led by Robin J. Wilson of the Humber Institute of Technology found that offenders in the Circles program had a 2.1 percent sex offense recidivism rate after 34 months in the community. A control group of comparable very high risk offenders elsewhere in Canmada had a 12.8 percent sex offense recidivism rate, which is still quite low compared with conventional wisdom.
Eileen Henderson is the Restorative Justice coordinator for the Mennonites in Ontario. She said half a dozen highly trained volunteers meet with a newly released offender, find out what help they need, and stand with them almost constantly in the beginning.
Some offenders eventually reunite with their family members, although that doesn’t always happen. The Circles program helps them understand the immense harm they have created and learn ways to repair that harm. It’s not always directly to their victim. It can be by living safely in the community, by changing the choices they make and by doing community service.
“I believe in the power of redemption,” Henderson said. “I’ve seen people change when they work through their issues of shame. They get a glimmer of themselves as people of value. They’re not garbage.”
Maybe that’s hope for a troubled age.
Corrections.com author, Chris Dornin, is a retired State House reporter and the founder of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform.
|By Chris Dornin, Retired Statehouse reporter|