May 22, 2013

Miracle Village: A leper colony for bogeymen

Almost 750,000 Americans are now on sex offender registries, and the numbers just keep growing. Because the truly dangerous are mixed in with the far more numerous low-risk offenders, registries are useless from a public safety perspective. But they do have a pernicious effect on ex-offenders, who -- like the lepers of yore -- oftentimes find themselves with nowhere to go and no hope of ever reintegrating into society.

Enter "Miracle Village" in Florida. Built in 1964 for sugar cane workers (some of whom still live there), it was transformed into a haven by an evangelical pastor and his wife (both of whom, ironically, were sexually molested as children). It's now home to about 100 convicted sex offenders, a place they can be among others like themselves and feel a bit more human. Since the community was established in 2009, there has not been one reported sex crime, according to the local sheriff's office.

But it's only a drop in the bucket. The demand is extraordinary; more than 100 people per week apply for the limited housing.

The short video Sex Offender Village was put together by two people who come from what might be seen as opposite ends of the spectrum: Documentary filmmaker Lisa Jackson has spent years examining sex crimes from the victim’s point of view; David Feige is a former chief public defender from the Bronx turned TV writer. But they agree on one thing: U.S. sex offender laws are "doing more harm than good":
In the past 25 years, the laws governing sex offenses have gone from punitive to draconian to senseless. The term 'sex offender' simply covers too wide a range now, painting the few truly heinous crimes and the many relatively innocuous ones with the same broad brush. This overly broad approach wastes resources that could be better spent, for instance, on clearing the huge and unforgivable backlog of untested rape evidence kits. We see even deeper problems: the explosion of sex offender registries, stringent yet demonstrably ineffective residency restrictions, and the bizarre world of 'civil commitment,' where we punish what someone might do rather than what he or she has done. All of this suggests that our entire approach to dealing with sex offenders has gone tragically off the rails.