Oklahoma, ahead of the times in re-integrating sex offenders into society
Sex offender…the mere mention of the word can turn even the most pleasant conversation into one filled with anger. Questions like ‘How could they?’ and ‘Why would they?’ inevitably come up. And those who commit the crimes often face years in prison. But if and when they get out, what greets them on the outside?
Before we get there, we should start here. Sex offender: it includes everything from felony rape to inappropriate touching. But all the crimes get grouped together. If you’re a registered child sex offender, a 2008 law barred you from living within 2,000 feet of a school, park, or day care…
“Any metro area of Oklahoma, they’re not going to be allowed to live in. So you have to think rural when you begin to reintegrate them, almost from the beginning. When I say rural, I’m saying at a minimum the outskirts of a metro town or city.”
Floyd Long is transition coordinator for the state’s Department of Corrections. He works to get the worst of the worst integrated into society, so they can contribute whatever is possible. He tries to find them housing, a job, and transportation, with the help of family.
“The ability to buy a car, your metro transportation, your bus systems do not go out to the metro areas. So it becomes a big challenge when it comes to transportation.”
“Thus it becomes a challenge to get employment because they can’t get to their job. So it kinda snowballs, there’s a snowball effect that begins to occur.”
Inside the Crossings Community Center, just north of Lake Hefner, non-profit leaders, DOC staff, religious leaders, and interested volunteers, all came together a couple weeks ago to get a sense of the problem.
“If anything it’s going to get worse…”
This is one of the few conferences in the country devoted to the topic. Steve Gordon heads the Oklahoma Partnership for Successful Reentry and organized the gathering of about 50. That’s fifty people trying to help hundreds of sex offenders due out this year…
“We want to get that dialogue started. Dialogue with each other, dialogue with the powers that be, dialogue with the community and the two biggest challenges, nothing personal against you, but the media and public opinion.”
But yet here in Oklahoma, a state often cited in national media as backwards and behind the times, a discussion about what can be done. Why?
“We have a very strong faith community in Oklahoma and a lot of the churches have been stepping up. And then if they really are sensitive to the needs, the hardest reentry of anybody is the sex offender.”
“Nobody wants to help them, they’ve typically burned their bridges. And so it takes someone with a great heart of mercy even to want to look at them. They’re the lepers of society.”
I’m out on a walk with John at Hand Up Ministries in southwest Oklahoma City.
A registered sex offender from California, he now works full time for the ministry. John got out of jail in 1994 and has been in Oklahoma for years. An enthusiastic, eternally optimistic guy, he seems to take the best possible view of the situation he put himself in. But he’s fighting his registration requirements because of the stigma..
“I believe if a person lives like me, I’ve been out for twenty years, why shouldn’t I be able to?”
John points to studies that show the recidivism rate at somewhere between 5 and 15 percent for sex offenders, far below the average for most other crimes.
Everyone I talked to described a snowball effect. They have trouble finding a place to live, then they don’t have access to transportation, and so they can’t even try to interview for a job, where there’s a whole another set of barriers. Wayne Bowers works with CURE-SORT, devoted to sex offender reentry.
“I think all of a sudden, there’s beginning to be more and more people who are speaking out. When I moved here, I was worried. I thought ‘Am I really getting into something?’. But I’m encouraged to see there is a lot of place for growth here.”
But how does this affect you and me? Lately, the default position has been to wall sex offenders off. Well, Steve Gordon says some are starting to realize why that often doesn’t work…
“It’s making the public less safe because right now in Oklahoma County, we have 120 homeless sex offenders because there’s no place for them to go. That’s not good. Everybody I talk to, no matter what their background or what their profession, they say that’s a bad thing.”
But in the back of Steve Gordon’s mind, there’s the question of the standards these programs are held to.
“We can have the best reentry policies, the best reentry concepts and systems, they will not work. All we need is one angry citizen going up onto the steps of Legislature pitching a fit and it will undue years of good work we’ve been trying to do.”
That’s all it came down to in the day-long conference. The best programs could struggle to compete with one of the most powerful motivators: fear. A solution to that is far more difficult.