If you read the following editorial as being sympathetic toward sex offenders, you are missing the point.
We are not being sympathetic. We simply want to state that it’s not always possible to legislate our way to safety.
Dawn Knull wants a change in state law that would prohibit any convicted sex offender classified as a “sexually violent predator” from living within a 500-foot radius of a school, day care, or playground, according to an online petition on change.org. She is a Middletown borough councilor but says she is seeking this change as a private citizen.
The move was spurred by the fact a convicted sex offender moved not far from the Middletown Area High School complex.
Sex offenders who are released from prison create one of the ultimate NIMBY issues — not in my backyard. After all, does any of us want a convicted sex offender in our neighborhood?
Many prey on the weakest members of our society. They deserve the punishment that they get. But do they deserve the stigma that comes with a conviction after they have done their time, have gone through counseling and are released?
You can plot where all the sex offenders in Middletown live quite easily. You can’t do the same with other criminals in our neighborhoods. You can’t plot the addresses of all the convicted drug offenders.
Let’s make another point abundantly clear as well: They are in our neighborhoods right now. There are 30 convicted sex offenders living in Middletown, including two sexually violent predators, according to the Megan’s Law website.
Our prison system is based on the premises of rehabilitation. We seemingly don’t know what to do with sex offenders. Lock them up forever? That seems too severe. So we let them out with numerous and massive restrictions. We make them register where they are living for life. They have to notify their neighbors when they move nearby. Their addresses are available to all on the Megan’s Law website, which also includes the strong admonition that “any person who uses the information contained herein to threaten, intimidate, or harass the registrant or their family, or who otherwise misuses this information, may be subject to criminal prosecution or civil liability.”
There is not even hard data to show that they are going to commit another sex-related crime despite society’s widespread thought that they do so with regularity.
A 2008 Scientific American study pointed to “media portrayals in such television programs as ‘Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,’ in which sex offenders are almost always portrayed as chronic repeaters.” The article stated that “the average member of the general public believes that 75 percent of sex offenders will reoffend.”
It’s not true.
A widely supported 2004 study cited as recently as 2015 by the U.S. Department of Justice states that the sexual recidivism estimates for all sex offenders in the study were 14 percent at five years, 20 percent at 10 years, and 24 percent at 15 years.
While we don’t want to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about recidivism when it comes to sex offenders, it’s very safe to say that not every one of them reoffends. In fact, a majority do not.
Another key point: As Press & Journal reporter Dan Miller found out, many experts have said in recent years that residency restrictions don’t work because “you are driving (sex offenders) underground and making their rehabilitation impossible,” according to Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
Residency restrictions such as those struck down in the Allegheny County ordinance potentially “cut off” offenders from the support systems and treatment resources within the community “that they (offenders) need to keep from reoffending,” said Meghan Dade, executive director of the Pennsylvania Sexual Offenders Assessment Board.
Not to mention the logistics: “It’s very difficult for the (state board of probation and parole) to restrict people based upon proximity to a school or a playground, etc., because the majority of residences may be around a playground or park especially in a city,” said Maria Finn, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. “The parolee wouldn’t be able to live at all in any city — any open lot could be considered a playground if children are using it as a playground.”
We realize that if one convicted sex offender harms one young person in our communities, it will be hard for any of us to be rational about what we should do to prevent it from happening again, because it is a heinous act with long-lasting effects.
But we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that there are no easy answers.
While an effort like Knull’s might make us feel better, it might not have any effect past what is already in place.
That’s the unfortunate conclusion that none of us like to consider.