Officials question impact of sex offender registry

HUDSON–Ways to reduce the chance of ex-convicts returning to crime after completing their sentence include helping them get secure housing, a secure income, helpful education and counseling, Scott Thomas, division director of the Mental Health Association of Columbia-Greene Counties told a meeting of ReEntry Columbia January 9.

But many housing, job, education and counseling options he and others observed, are not available to sex offenders. Furthermore, meeting attendees pointed out, the sex offender registry stigmatizes those on it, sometimes for life. “Marginalization doesn’t work. It’s the worst,” said Mr. Thomas. “And we’ve seen the bad effects more with sex offenders than with others.”

“The last thing we want is for people to recommit the crime,” Mr. Thomas said later. “We want them to develop a new identity as a functioning part of the community. The trouble with stigmatization is that it makes the identity” they had when committing the offense into “the only identity they know.”

ReEntry helps people leaving prison reintegrate into society. At the January 9 meeting, points brought up included the inconsistency of assigning sex offenders severity levels, age limits, the fact that victims and offenders frequently know each other; and recidivism rates.

The original purpose of the sex offender registry was to help law enforcement, said Laurie Scott, executive director of ReEntry Columbia. The sex registry has three levels, with 3 the most severe. Those in Level 1, the least severe, must register their address for 20 years, said Vince Doto, Columbia County director of probation. Those in the other two levels must register their address for life. Columbia County had 51 in Level 1, 53 in Level 2, 33 in Level 3, and 4 who have been convicted but whose level has not been assigned, as of latest count available, said Ms. Scott.

Although courts determine guilt, administrators determine which level someone found guilty of a sex offense is assigned. And there are “problems with process” of assigning levels, said Ian Crimmins, an assistant public defender for Columbia County. Decisions made by administrators need less proof than those made in law courts. Furthermore “administrative decisions are hard to overturn at the legal level,” he said.

It is possible that someone will be assigned to Level 3 for committing a less severe assault than someone assigned a Level 1. Ms. Scott wondered, “What if a big business owner’s son gets Level 1 when he should get higher?”

In jail, “guys who went to the sex offender workshop–everybody knew who they were. That’s a form of stigma and marginalization,” said Ms. Scott.

“How about treatment programs [in and after jail] not specifically for sex offenders but with what they need woven in?” asked Mr. Thomas.

Still, he reported, “We often get people who could benefit from the services we provide in a place in Catskill. But since the building it’s in, and has been in for years, happens to be near a school, the law forbids sex offenders from treatment there.”

A woman at the meeting said, “Some job applications no longer ask: ‘Have you ever been convicted of a crime?’ However, at an interview, someone was asked, ‘Are you on any register?’ and he had to answer ‘Yes.’ He wasn’t offered the job.”

“If you’re on the registry, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. But the public perceives you as one,” said ReEntry intern Tim Milano.

Discussion also included circumstances in which offenses occur. One woman said, “Children are sexually active younger and younger. What if a boy turns 17?”

“They don’t distinguish 19-year-olds who have sex with a 16-year-old from real predators,” added Carolyn Polikarpus, case manager for ReEntry.

Ms. Scott said that, despite the image of “strangers lurking around bus stops” to snare a victim, “most sex offenders and victims know each other.”

The meeting included references to a New York Times September 12, 2017 Op Ed piece by David Feige that said, despite a 1986 Psychology Today article suggesting that up to 80% of some groups of sex-offenders could commit their offenses again, “evidence-based scientific studies” since then by several states and the federal government have “put the three-year recidivism rate for convicted sex offenders…in the low single digits….”

Still, said Ms. Scott, “One good thing out of the Me Too movement is that more offenses are reported.”

Asked later how they would respond to someone who said lifetime stigmatization might deter people who had never committed the offense from committing it ever, Mr. Thomas responded that society benefits from preventing people who have already committed an offense from committing it again, and sometimes preventing them from doing so requires accepting them back into society without stigma.

Ms. Scott responded, “People in the heat of committing a crime don’t think about the consequences. The stigma keeps people out of the loop and out of efforts to develop a normal life.”

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