By Shana Rowan (Blog, USA Fair Inc.)
It was with great disappointment that I read MPNnow.com blogger Jeffrey Arnold’s suggestion that readers contact their state Assembly members in support of a bill that would ban registered sex offenders from volunteering or becoming employed as firefighters. Like the majority of sex offender laws, this proposal is based on misconceptions and will do nothing to improve public safety.
As executive director of a nonprofit group advocating for evidence-based sex offender laws, I’m well aware that society tends to view all sex offenders as incurable predators, and proposed laws reflecting those sentiments are churned out every day. This idea is no different in that regard, but it is easily one of the more ludicrous ones.
According to the New York State Senate Open Legislation site, this bill is necessary because “volunteer firefighters are often in situations where children and families are present and most vulnerable due to a fire or medical emergency” and “fire fighters frequently participate in community and school activities in which children are present that would give sex offenders unique access to children.”
Extensive research over the past two decades has consistently found sex offender recidivism (re-offense) to be very low – usually in the single digits – and overwhelmingly, sex crime victims know their perpetrators either as family members or acquaintances – not strangers. There is absolutely no record anywhere of a registered sex offender sexually re-offending while acting as a volunteer firefighter responding to an emergency scene. Other than the precious seconds before and after pulling someone out of a burning building, the opportunity for a firefighter to be alone with a potential victim is virtually nonexistent.
The notion that sex offenders would become firefighters so they can attend school and community activities from which to pick their next victim is ridiculous. High-profile cases of child rape and murder by strangers are high-profile because they are so rare – not representative of the majority of registrants. Again, 95 pecent of all child sexual abuse is committed by someone the victim knows inside the home – not by a stranger in a public place.
It’s been proven that establishing healthy ties to the community is essential in successful reintegration and avoiding recidivism. Sex offender laws are already so restrictive, it can be impossible for former offenders to maintain housing or employment. These restrictions are suffered by the family members and children of offenders, too. If we want to avoid re-offense, we need more opportunities, not less.
Are there dangerous people on the registry who may harm children? Of course. But they are the exception, not the rule. Painting all registrants with the same broad brush significantly dilutes the effectiveness of the registry and needlessly hinders individuals trying their best to reenter society.
Why should the 20-year-old man convicted of consensual sex with his teenage girlfriend be denied the chance to volunteer? The senior citizen whose crime was committed decades ago? The person put on the registry for inappropriate behavior as an adolescent – even as a child? These are the people who are registered sex offenders, and they and their families deserve the chance to rebuild their lives.
Shana Rowan is executive director of USA Families Advocating an Intelligent Registry, Inc. (www.usafair.org), a nonprofit group founded by family members of people on the registry.