Amen and God bless this man for doing what he is doing.
By Michelle Ye Hee Lee
Experts and advocates agree there are practical steps Arizona officials could take to improve community safety and limit opportunities for recidivism among sex offenders, particularly those who are homeless.
Among the most important steps: Start a public dialogue about how best to house sex offenders, with the discussion involving municipal and state policy makers, law-enforcement officials and members of the community.
“It’s a very difficult issue,” Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said. “It deserves good, deep thinking to the extent that we are in the same position as every other major metropolitan area and every other state, that we have not effectively dealt with this issue.”
An eight-month review by The Arizona Republic found that the state struggles to monitor, house and reintegrate sex offenders after they are released from prison. An analysis by the newspaper found that large numbers of offenders are homeless and some registered to street corners.
Social, legal and political factors that contribute to the problem will not change quickly, and experts agree that long-term solutions will remain elusive, expensive and politically unpopular.
Not everything would cost money, however. Clarifying and simplifying the responsibilities of agencies involved in tracking homeless sex offenders upon release from prison is one low-cost solution that authorities say could make a difference. Without that, overlapping responsibilities blur the lines of accountability and monitoring offenders is less reliable.
Experts also say the state should review its classifications for offenders, targeting resources and funding law enforcement to better monitor those who are the most violent, dangerous and likely to re-offend.
A 2006 Arizona State University study on sex-offender clustering in Phoenix recommended making it mandatory for local police to do in-person address verifications for the highest-risk offenders.
The researchers said it “would require that policy makers revisit offender classification guidelines to ensure that they accurately reflect the dangers posed to society, and allocate and distribute resources for monitoring accordingly.”
Though the city shelved the report without taking any action, its findings remain relevant today.
- And that is the problem!
“From a public-safety standpoint, if we have all these laws and all these punitive things so that we know where they are, yet we don’t know where they are, then we have a problem,” said David Bridge, managing director of central Phoenix’s Human Services Campus. “There has to be a unified solution here.”
The Arizona Republic gathered other proposals based on interviews with local and national officials familiar with the issue. Their suggestions include:
Create halfway houses, or a campus similar to central Phoenix’s Human Services Campus, strictly for sex offenders.
Supporters believe a temporary living facility modeled after the Human Services Campus would allow offenders to stabilize and receive social services until they are prepared to live independently. Ideally, it would be located in an industrial area or some other place away from schools and families.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons, for example, treats sex offenders much like its other inmates by referring them to halfway houses, where they receive support services. Some federal prisoners are sent to a pair of Phoenix halfway houses, one of which is home to no more than 10 sex offenders at a time, where they serve the last six to 12 months of their sentences.
The Human Services Campus, near 12th Avenue and Madison Street, is a hub for social services, including food and shelter, substance-abuse treatment, job training and public-transit assistance. That $24 million campus was built with a mix of public and private funds.
Mark Holleran, executive director of Central Arizona Shelter Services, said up-front funding of that magnitude is not likely for a sex-offender facility. A more realistic approach would be a small-scale pilot program lasting 12 to 18 months and using temporary trailers or buildings in an isolated area.
Social-service staffers could provide on-site monitoring and supervision. Sex offenders could receive on-site treatment, counseling and job-skills training.
Similarly, at the federal halfway house in Phoenix, inmates are assigned caseworkers and goals are set for substance-abuse recovery, housing and employment, said Virginia Nuñez, administrative assistant at Behavioral Systems Southwest Inc., a federal contractor running the facility.
“The goal is to give them a head start, getting back into society while they’re here, so that they’re not just directly released into the public when they don’t really have anything together,” Nuñez said. “By the time they’re released, they should have some type of release address established, and goals should have been met.”
Bridge noted that sex offenders have unique supervision needs. Proper supervision of their reintegration into society would help keep them from becoming homeless and difficult to track, he said.
“We’ll be at that table. We are affected by this,” Bridge said. “We need to come up with a solution, and we may have to fund a solution.”
Researching and tailoring social services to sex offenders in a pilot program is key, Holleran said. Providers could measure how many offenders find and keep housing and jobs and calculate the cost to duplicate or expand the program, he said.
The idea is popular among human-services officials, but funding is a challenge. Holleran said it likely would require the work of private and public agencies, but he advocates that the state fund the effort.
“It’s difficult enough for me to raise money for homeless families, for women who are victims of domestic violence, for veterans,” Holleran said. “The state, I think, ultimately would have to say, ‘OK, we’re going to provide the funding to make this happen.’”
Seek help from faith-based organizations, prison ministries and community groups willing to be involved in reintegrating newly released offenders.
At least two ministries in Phoenix quietly offer employment and housing to sex offenders. Few organizations publicly tout their involvement in helping these ex-cons because of the social stigma and public fears.
One ministry has operated for four years in an unmarked building in downtown Phoenix. Redeemed Outreach Center (Facebook) runs an eight-month reintegration program that includes sex offenders recently released from prison. Offenders living there do not initially pay rent. They attend Bible studies, undergo counseling and do chores for the ministry until they are stable enough to look for jobs.
On a recent field visit, Surveillance Officer Autumn Freeman visited Stephen Lassiter, 47, a sex offender under supervision of the Maricopa County Adult Probation Department.