Sex Offender Next Door
Sex Offender Next Door
Sex offender statutes have proliferated in the last decade, creating what is often described as a caste system – a regime that combines the stigmatization of the public registry with severe restrictions in housing, mobility, employment, and social contract. It is imposed for years, even a lifetime, after the completion of prison or probation. These laws affect 20,941 people in Illinois and their families, yet there has been no more public dialogue about them, even as legislators pursue more draconian policies. Last session alone, 13 new sex offender bills were passed by the Illinois General Assembly.
These restrictions may seem like good common sense, but the research suggests otherwise. Although registered sex offenders (registrants) are assumed to be incurable, the vast majority (87%) will not re-offend. Therefore, most new sex crimes are committed by people who are not on the registry. Furthermore, these laws have many unintended consequences including:
• co-punishing victims who reunite with the offender
• discouraging victims from reporting sex crimes (which are already underreported)
• lumping together consensual sex acts and victimless crimes with violent offenses
• straining scarce law enforcement resources for policies that don’t improve public safety
• increasing the risk factors for recidivism by destabilizing and isolating ex-offenders
• stigmatizing the family members of registrants and creating hardships for their children
• focusing on strangers when the majority of perpetrators know their victims
• pushing offenders into homelessness or back into prison on parole violations
I propose to produce 3 cultural projects in collaboration with artists, registrants and their families, and use them in conjunction with 20 public presentations on specific topics relating to sexual violence and sex offender policy. For example, here are two issues worthy of civic dialogue:
• Each year over 1000 sex offenders are granted parole, but cannot find a legal residence, and are therefore reincarcerated at the cost of 8.5 million annually. On parole they would have received treatment and supervision, but in prison, they don’t. When they finally max-out of prison and return to society, they are permitted to register as homeless.
• Child molesters are widely depicted as adult strangers, although 1/3 of child molestation cases are actually perpetrated by minors themselves. In fact, the most common age of reported sex offenders is 14. As it happens, Illinois has one year to choose to comply with the comprehensive federal Adam Walsh Act. Among other things, this would require that juveniles be placed on the registry at age 14. Yet, with treatment, juveniles have no increased risk of re-offending.
There is no single prototype of a perpetrator, or a sex crime, but it will certainly take time and public dialogue to undo the myths we have about them. I will organize these conversations/workshops with church congregations, university centers, artistic venues, non-profit boards, advocacy groups, and legislators. At larger venues, discussants will include policymakers, law enforcement, treatment providers, victim advocates, and/or registrants and their families. This funding will bring the cultural projects to fruition, and help deploy a traveling exhibition on this critical public policy topic. A rigorous evaluation process will chart the impact on participants.
1) CALLING CARDS. Fashioned after those used by deaf people on the subway, and the “Calling Cards” of Adrian Piper, these cards are designed to spur productive conversations on a variety of occasions. One card starts, “Dear Friend, I am the family member of a sex offender. I know you did not realize that when you….” Another begins, “Dear Neighbor, I know you recognize me from the sex offender registry….” One reads, “Dear Legislator, You have already ruined my son’s life…When is enough enough? When will you stop?” Working with RSOs and their families, we will make and use specialized cards to reflect the everyday situations they face. Cards addressing legislators will be submitted into the public record at committee hearings, used for lobbying and classified as “legislative art.”
2) SEX OFFENDER COMING HOME. These photodramas will depict ex-offenders returning from prison and being welcomed back to their communities. Different scenarios will be illustrated: handshakes with neighbors, a tree with a yellow ribbon, a mariachi band, a step show. Four photo series will be produced in Chicago neighborhoods with local actors, affected families, and a collaborating photographer. Each team will design the mise-en-scene and orchestrate the narrative, based on a real or fictional story, giving collaborators and viewers the opportunity to imagine alternatives to the current practice of ostracism and banishment.
3) S.O. BULLETIN. This testimony-based publication will be a forum for discussing the lives of registrants, including obstacles to housing and employment, the impact of social stigmatization, and strategies to prevent re-offending. It will include the voices of treatment providers, law enforcement, and survivors. These narratives will illuminate the impact of crime on victims, and the impact of ostracism on registrants and their families.