Before she started work at New Haven’s Columbus House as senior manager of housing services, Cathleen Meaden’s job was housing people whose crimes were seemingly unforgivable.
Her charges were people on the state’s sex offender registry, and when she’d talk to people about her job, the reaction was often not-very-hidden disgust that she worked in close proximity with people who’d committed such heinous crimes.
“There’s an ick factor,” said Meaden. “I have always said I don’t have a warm spot in my heart for sex offenders,” but as Connecticut continues to chip away at the pernicious problem of homelessness, this particular cohort – people who’ve committed crimes that put them on the state’s sex offender registry -- presents a unique challenge.
Research has shown that the current system – shunning and shaming -- creates precisely the environment least conducive for the prevention of future offenses.
“The label is the most repulsive, alienating label we have,” said Laurie Guidry, a Massachusetts-based licensed clinical and consulting psychologist who focuses on the treatment of sex offenders, and the prevention of sexual violence. “These are effectively the lepers of our time. The larger concern should be on preventing this from happening in the first place.”
Appearance on the registry usually means reduced opportunities for jobs and housing, but the population of sex offenders is immensely diverse. Guidry said that a small percentage of offenders commit the horrific stranger-abduction crimes that make the news.
Of the 5,600 or so people on the state’s registry, no more than 300 could be considered high-risk, said Thomas Ullmann, public defender in New Haven, and co-chair of a 12-member subcommittee that is studying the sentencing of sex offenders in the state.
Responding to a slew of federal and state initiatives, Connecticut created a sex offender registry in 1998. People who explore the online registry can find people who’ve been convicted of sex offenses by their name, their home town, and the like. Depending on the seriousness of the crime, a Connecticut offender must register for ten years, or for life.
The registry carries a proviso that the Department of Emergency Services & Public Protection, which maintains the list, “has made no determination that any individual included in the Registry is currently dangerous,” but that doesn’t do much in the way of removing stigma. Law- and policy-makers are left with working in that delicate balance between protecting public safety, and guarding the civil rights of the offenders.
“Are there dangerous people? Yes, there are dangerous people. Is everyone who ever committed a sexual offense a dangerous person? No,” said Guidry.
Last year, Governor Dannel Malloy signed an act that requires the Connecticut Sentencing Commission to study the “registration, management, and sentencing” of the state’s sex offenders.
Two other subcommittees separate from Ullmann’s are studying assessment and management, and victim and community needs. The committee has submitted an interim report; its final report is due at the end of next year.
“We have a long way to go,” Ullmann said of his subcommittee. “But we’ve gotten a pretty good consensus from the group that one of the major problems we have with our sex registry statutes is that first of all, it is tremendously over-inclusive.”
Guidry said that people on the registry range from one's worst nightmare to adolescents acting out, yet few people talk about the difference between high- or low-risk offenders.
The idea of keeping track of sex offenders sprang, in part, from the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. That law was amended in 1996 with Megan’s Law, named after a seven-year old New Jersey girl who was raped and killed by a convicted pedophile in her neighborhood.
Megan’s Law required states to release at least minimum information about sex offenders or risk losing federal funds.
A 2008 federal study said Megan’s Law did not significantly reduce sex offenses, and Connecticut is not the only state that is examining its approach to sex offenses.
Guidry is a popular speaker, and when she asks audience members what they think of when they hear the phrase “sex offender,” she generally gets negative responses.
“That’s how we see this population in our culture,” she said. “And it’s valid. What this population does is unconscionable. It’s not to be tolerated. It’s unacceptable. It’s illegal. We need to stop it.”
But an emotional reaction does not make good public policy. Acting on fears has helped create public policy that is wrong for this population, both Guidry and Ullman said.
“It’s a good approach to public policy when you’re trying to bind people’s emotions in a public case, but when you’re in that kind of emotional place is never a good place to make plans and decisions,” said Guidry. “You want to think it through a bit. We are failing the victims by making bad decisions around public policy. Maybe there are better ways to do this. If we know more, we can do better.”
Once someone has committed a sex offense, factors that create an environment for recidivism include housing instability, and not having access to family support or treatment. And this is precisely what often greets offenders post-incarceration.
“In an effort to make things more safe,” said Meaden, “we are making things more dangerous.”
“Frankly, it’s no different than the way we’ve react[ed] with other criminal justice policies,” said Ullmann. “We detect a problem, we overreact completely, and that overreaction leads to unbelievable injustices. That’s what happened here. Then we have to correct that, and that takes many years.”
But no matter what Ullman’s committee suggests, the onus will be on legislators to change the law. This is a difficult conversation to have, and an even more difficult mind-set to change.
“That will be the next hurdle,” said Ullmann. “We did the same thing with juveniles sentenced as adults, in terms of parole access. We studied that for two years and came up with what we thought was a really good proposal. That took three years for our proposal to finally get traction, and it got passed, and that was nothing as controversial as this.”
Until better policy is written – and perhaps registry rules are altered -- Meaden said the main challenge for this cohort is finding landlords willing to rent to people on the list. If they don’t find housing, once their jail or probation time is completed, they return home, perhaps to re-offend.
“We are preventing future victims by housing people,” said Meaden.