Saturday, December 11, 2010

Punishment without end.

A homeless man recently froze to death in Grand Rapids, MI. He was a sex offender who had served his time in prison. Grand Rapids had passed an ordinance forbidding sex offenders to sleep within 1000 feet of a school. The city fathers and mothers who passed that ordinance apparently did not notice (or did not care) that both homeless shelters in their town were very close to the Catholic High School. When this homeless man came to the shelter on a bitter cold night, he was refused entry because he was a registered sex offender. He was found frozen to death the next morning.

In most states sex offenders have to register. In many places, the police are obligated to inform the neighbors of such registered ex-felons. In other places, such as Grand Rapids, sex offenders are prohibited from living in many areas. In some localities the effect of these ordinances is to make it impossible for sex offenders to live in the town.

For a sex offenders, it is not possible to ever end their punishment. Long after they leave prison – usually having served for many years – they find it difficult to secure a job, to find housing, to the integrate into society. Their pictures and addresses appears on a government website. They have no privacy; they are not allowed quietly to rebuild their lives. A sex offender in our society serves a life sentence. They can never come to the end of paying their debt to society.

This draconian treatment is often justified by claiming that all sex offenders will reoffend. But that assertion, often advanced by politicians pandering to popular fears, is clearly false. Yes, some sex offenders reoffend. But their rate of reoffense is lower than that in other categories of crimes. Rates of reoffense  among drug users or burglars are higher. Even murderers are more likely to commit another murder.

Hysteria about sex offenders has deprived them of the right to become productive citizens once more. It ignores a large body of scientific information about the different kinds of sex offenses, the likelihood that different offenders commit another crime, the possibilities and success of treatments of sex offenders.

This refusal to consider the information we have commits terrible injustices. 

The death of Thomas Pauli in Grand Rapids Michigan is simply an especially deplorable example of that.