Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Rehabilitation of Sex Offenders

Comment on this has come in by request from a regular reader.

My father molested little girls. I don’t know the details, as that was why my mother divorced him in 1959, and I got my later information secondhand from my brother. As far as I know, he never molested children again after that date. He was certainly never convicted again. Some evidence, nonetheless, suggests that he remained attracted to little girls even late in life.

I also know professionally any number of sexual offenders. I don’t like to offer much opinion on their recidivism, because I don’t have complete followup information on any of them. Some I know for certain to have reoffended. A very few – two in particular – I am quite sure have not reoffended, up to twenty years later. A few others I consider probable nonoffenders. Of those few who seem to be doing well, about half are no longer seriously attracted to their previous victim population, the other half remain attracted but have strategies to minimize both attraction and opportunity.

Statistically, sexual offenders who don’t reoffend don’t exist. It’s an odd feeling to know people who don’t exist.

It is the overwhelming recidivism rate which drives our legal and emotional conflicts about where to settle sex offenders in the community once their sentences are finished. We don’t like to punish people beyond their sentences in America, and have taken great care to structure our laws so that we don’t keep piling on just because we are angry or appalled. On the other hand, we take very seriously our responsibilty to protect the vulnerable, especially children. These two values are in direct conflict when a sex offender’s sentence is up.

The intensity is driven in part by our extreme disgust at adults who take sexual advantage of children. I only partly understand this. Physical harm of children or neglect of them would seem equally bad to me. While we certainly disapprove of those as well and try to consequate and discourage those behaviors, there is not quite the animus around this unless it is extreme. Perhaps this anger is in counter-reaction to the minimizing of the damage that perpetrators try to sell us. Perhaps it is driven by instinctive taboos. But the energy is great.

If sexual offenders reoffended little more than the general population, it is likely that our American value of not punishing forever would win out legally. The enormous controversies about where previous offenders could live would recede. We don’t have bank-robber registries or check-forger registries. None of us wishes to live near dangerous drivers violent drunks, but we bring less institutional power to bear in keeping them away from us.

We are exceedingly cautious around previous offenders for good reason: they have enormous rates of reoffending over time. While claims that none of them will ever be safe are inaccurate, the idea is not based on nothing. Convicted sexual abusers of boys may average over two hundred victims each. Abusers of girls have fewer victims, but are more numerous. In the face of such numbers it is common for people to picture offenders as psychologically all the same. I have not found this to be true, and many researchers find important differences in the population. In particular, the intellectually limited seem to have personality differences compared to those offenders who are average in intelligence and above. This makes an intuitive sense. A developmentally disabled 23 year-old man who wants 10 year old boys as friends and starts to become sexual in the friendship is different from a 30 year old middle-school teacher attempting to seduce. The behavior as experienced by the victim may be equally traumatic over time, but the perpetrators are constructed differently.

As an anecdotal example, I had a 19-year-old developmentally disabled boy who had had sex with a 13 year old boy. The younger boy was of above-normal intelligence and had a considerable juvenile criminal record already, including the sexual victimization of children younger than himself. So which is the victim? Yet the behavior of the older boy cannot be ignored and swept away. He must, simply must learn that sexual interaction with boys younger than say, sixteen, is bad and can get him in serious trouble.

I wish I had solutions. I have only conflicting values to put before you.


Unknown said...

I think the conflict is between a legal system that only considers criminal acts as isolated events, and the fact that - as you state - in this particular area the acts are overwhelmingly far from isolated.

We restrict the rights of convicted felons to posses firearms, vote, etc. Similarly, while one might have served their sentence (punishment), I do not believe that necessarily also means they have paid their "debt to society." If they have a little trouble finding a place to live, tough cookies. They are not the only one to have to deal with the fallout of their crime for the rest of their lives.

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