Sex offenders face obstacles from well-intended laws

by Mary Ann McGivern

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I've been trying to help a sex offender I'll call George to find a home plan in preparation for his release from prison in March. I've known this man for 10 years. His crimes are computer crimes and stupidity. Will he re-offend? Of course I don't know. I do know it's statistically unlikely that he would molest a child. But I don't know.

What I also know is that if he can find housing and a job, he has a much better chance of not re-offending and public safety will be enhanced. But the state legislature has said in its wisdom that convicted sex offenders cannot live within a thousand feet of a day-care center. The two home addresses George has submitted have day-care centers exactly on the edge of that thousand-foot circle. Nope, say the parole officers who investigate home plans.

George is lucky in that he has a team from a Lutheran congregation that has committed to help him, and one of the team members works for a housing management company that will give George a job as well as an apartment -- if they can find an open, low-rent flat in the city that is not near a school or day-care center or park. It's the day-care, small businesses in homes, meeting real urban needs, that pop up on the map and nix housing plans.

If George can't find housing, he'll stay in prison past his parole date, possibly serving his full sentence. Good riddance, some might say, but he'll lose parole assistance and oversight and, because he will have to register as a sex offender, he will still have the same housing problems. And of course George is not alone. He has a lot more support than most.

Around the country, people with sex offence convictions are living under bridges, lying to registry officers, or not registering. None of these strategies enhance public safety. I'm sure it seemed like common sense to legislators, including Congress, to require public registration and housing restrictions, but unemployed and homeless people who may have deviant sexual desires are in need of help and support, not rejection and destitution. Politicians know they have erred, but they are terrified of being called soft on crime if they attempt smarter policy. Walking bad policy backwards is a very slow process.

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