Prison reform and reentry seem to be the hottest topics these days. Some people believe that criminal justice concerns are the civil rights issue of the new millennium. There are countless advocates, activists and practitioners working on behalf of target populations that have been touched by the criminal justice system. Interestingly not many people are talking about the elephant in the room…. sex offenders.
Can sex offenders be rehabilitated and do they deserve a second chance? Moreover, should they have access to fair housing and employment? The infamous sex offender registration list was put in place to protect society from hideous acts of sexual violence. Most people will agree that’s a good thing. The problem is that there is a broad list of people who have allegedly committed acts of perversion against others who may be unfairly targeted, sending their lives into a spiraling pattern of problems.
Last week I met a 54-year-old man who has been homeless for over 30 years. According to this gentleman, he can’t find housing because he is on the sex offender list. At one point he got approved for a voucher to get a subsidized place to live. Once they found out about his criminal past and sex offense, the offer was quickly retracted.
This man and some of the other people who have been registered as sex offenders are not necessarily posing the danger the public thinks they are posing. In fact, this man was convicted of statutory rape at the age of 19. His girlfriend was 16 years old. The young girl’s mother, who wasn’t very impressed with him, had him arrested. By then his 16-year-old girlfriend was pregnant and he was sentenced to 18 years in prison. All of that was almost two decades ago and this man, who was accused of rape, has never been in any trouble with the law since then.
I was curious to hear about his relationship with his child who is obviously an adult now. He said that they have met and get along well. Unfortunately, his state of homelessness has him depressed and destitute. I sat in a state of discomfort, not knowing what to tell this man. Shaking my head repeatedly as I sought to gauge his sincerity, digest his story and imagine what it must be like to live with this stigma and shame.
I found myself wishing that there was someone I could refer him to. My Rolodex is full of concerned people who care about specific groups of people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system, but while talking to this man I drew a blank. If this was true… that he was convicted of statutory rape for having sex with his underage girlfriend and after serving 18 years in prison he is still paying for a crime that was arguably not an atrocious crime.
I’ve read about similar situations, and maybe I’m sensitive and naïve, but I was shocked by what I read. I felt deeply for this man, but unfortunately my empathy didn’t get him very far. In fact, it got him nowhere. He ended up leaving with a list of housing resources that wouldn’t likely pan out.
Chances are he will continue spinning his wheels living a life of pain, blame and deprivation. He truly is of the most forgotten population of people who have been touched by the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, I don’t see the tides turning for him. Nobody seems to care about sex offenders. Should they?