Friday, November 25, 2016

what's the harm in a background check?

A church runs background checks on all volunteers who have anything to do with children in an effort to protect the kids. Everyone does it. Liability issues, you know.

Seems reasonable, you say.

Is it?

Children are in no greater danger at church than any other place. Going to church in a car is the most dangerous part of going to church and we accept that danger without blinking.

But, you say, by keeping sex offenders away from children, a background check will prevent sexual abuse.

Does it?

Arrests for sexual abuse of a child are nearly always a first-time arrest, not of someone on the sex offender registry and not of someone who would be caught in a background check. Background checks do not identify those who are abusing children; background checks identify those who stopped abusing children.

There are good reasons to use background checks but eliminating sex offenders from the volunteer pool is not one of them. The assumption that registered sex offenders are a clear and present danger to children is not correct.

But, you say, background checks are harmless.

Are they?

When you use background checks to eliminate registered sex offenders from your world for reasons that do not stand up to scrutiny, you are perpetuating untruths about sex offenders.

You encourage others to think sex offenders are acceptable targets:
According to a recent bail memorandum, Jason Vukovich, a self-styled "avenging angel" according to one of the victims, carried a notebook with a list of names, including Charles Albee, Andres Barbosa and Wesley Demarest. Over five days in June, he entered the homes of the three men, uninvited, and hit them, sometimes with his fists and sometimes with a hammer. He also stole from them, said the bail memorandum signed by assistant district attorney Patrick McKay. 
Vukovich told police that he targeted his victims based on their listings on Alaska's sex-offender registry, the memo says. The online registry includes their home addresses, employer addresses and convictions.
You encourage prosecutors to use the registry to force an outcome:
An Iowa prosecutor is threatening to bring a sexual exploitation charge against a teenage girl who sent two photos of herself to a high school classmate, even though the pictures contain no nudity, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday. 
Marion County Attorney Ed Bull has said the teenager could have to register as a sex offender if a juvenile court judge found her delinquent for sending the Snapchat photos, according to the lawsuit.... 
As recently as Sept. 20, Bull has threatened through a lawyer to prosecute the teenager in juvenile court unless she participates in a diversion program that was completed by other students who were caught in the investigation. The program includes a class about the dangers of sexting, community service, restrictions on the teenager's cellphone and computer use, and a written admission of guilt, according to the lawsuit.
 You encourage people to think that sex offenders are forever dangerous:
A Palm Beach County court petition filed Aug. 31 claims Jack Ehrhart, a hospice patient with end-stage Alzheimer's disease, has been threatened with arrest if he does not move out of Heartland of Boynton Beach, a nursing home near a local preschool. 
The City of Boynton Beach purportedly issued a notice to Ehrhart and the hospice accusing them of violating an ordinance that prohibits sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a school, daycare center or playground.
When you act as if a registered sex offender is a monster, people around you may think you are right, even if you are not. That is how someone thinks it is acceptable to indulge in vigilante actions against registrants and that is how three men in Alaska came to be attacked.

When you act as if registration is a fine way to separate good people from the bad, people around you may think you are right, even if you are not. That is how prosecutors get the power to use the registry as a lever against people seen as immoral, and that is how an Iowa teen ends up fighting criminal charges when she did nothing criminal.

When you act as if registered citizens are dangerous no matter how long they have been living a law-abiding life, people around you may think you are right, even if you are not. That is how the 2500 foot residence restrictions and presence restrictions came about, and that is why an elderly Florida man is being kicked out of hospice care.

Yes, when you say you will protect children in your care by taking measures that will not protect children, there is a connection between you and those who misuse the registry.

Friday, November 18, 2016

private prisons vs. government-run prisons

Writing at the California Political Review, Katie Modisitt shows us that a focus on private prison problems is too narrow.
In mid-August, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would start phasing out its contracts with companies that run private prisons in light of disturbing reports of poor medical care, overcrowding and other abuses in their facilities. Although the issue has taken center stage in the debate over mass incarceration, it overshadows and distracts from the actual problem: the prison-industrial complex, which affects government-run prisons in a much more troubling way, and for many more inmates.
Government-run prisons are not inherently better than private prisons. 
Government-run, public prisons operate off the same perverse and monetary incentives to lock up human beings, but do so for more inmates and with much more at stake. ...
We don’t even have to leave California to get a glimpse of the perverse incentives at work in filling government prisons. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) represents approximately 30,000 California prison guards and parole officers. The union wields tremendous power over criminal justice policy, much more than private prison companies, and for nearly 20 times the inmates. While we are worried about private companies’ profit incentive to increase prison populations, shouldn’t we be infuriated about an organization that has job security, salaries and political influence hanging in the balance?
 Political influence.
Over the last 20 years, the CCPOA has contributed over $24 million to lobbying efforts and candidates. For comparison, GEO Group, a leading private prison company criticized for their role in increasing prison populations, spent only $5 million over the same time period. 
And, the activities of the CCPOA are aimed squarely on tougher sentencing laws, therefore preserving the prison-industrial complex that allows them to exist. The union, for example, spent over $100,000 to implement the original Three Strikes Law. More recently, it spent $1 million to defeat Proposition 5, which would have reduced sentences for nonviolent crimes, shifting the focus to rehabilitation for nonviolent drug offenders.
Rehabilitation for inmates who have to be there is one thing. Keeping them incarcerated for longer than necessary is another and yet that is what the correctional officers' union wanted.

Yes, private prisons can be bad. Not because they are private but because they are prisons.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

calling inmates something other than 'offenders'

The Washington Department of Corrections wants to stop using the word 'offender' when referring to those who are incarcerated.
Acting Corrections Secretary Dick Morgan told agency employees in a memo Tuesday the word will be replaced in policies and programs with terms such as “individuals,” “students” or “patients” depending on the circumstances.

And he encouraged corrections officers to call those serving time by their names and “practice replacing or removing the word ‘offenders’ from your communication and presentations to others.”

“Unfortunately, what starts as a technical term, used to generically describe the people in our care, becomes and is enforced as a stereotype,” he wrote. “As a stereotype, ‘offender’ is a label that impacts more than the person to whom it is applied.

“This label has now been so broadly used that it is not uncommon to see it used to describe others such as ‘offender families’ and ‘offender employers or services,’ ” he wrote.
His decision comes amid a national conversation among correction officials on how the use of certain terms can make it difficult for a person to reintegrate in society upon completing their prison term.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason announced in May the federal Office of Justice Programs would no longer refer to released prisoners as “felon” or “convict.” Instead, terms like “person who committed a crime” or “individual who was incarcerated” would be used. ...
“Rather than use a term that could be offensive or could lead to a stereotype, let’s use a term that can point to a different future for that person who is working to rehabilitate,” Barclay said. “Ninety-five percent of these individuals will be people living next to other people in the community.” [My emphasis.]
A freshening breeze! Let's not label people in a way that will feed stereotypes that make their lives more difficult at a time when we should be encouraging them to improve their circumstances.

And then the hammer comes down.
The term won’t disappear completely as registered sex offenders will still be identified in that manner. 
“That won’t change. They will be known as a registered sex offender,” Barclay said. “That is codified in law.”
He is right. State and federal laws apply the sex offender label. Even if prisons are able to stop using the term, those convicted of sex offenses will face the cold wind of reality on the outside.

Sex offenders will also be living in the community, trying to become a productive member of society again. The language in sex offender laws works against them.

That is the way labels work.

What do victim advocates think of this change in wording?
Marge Fairweather is executive director of the Everett-based Victim Support Services. Founded in 1975, the nonprofit is the oldest victim advocacy agency in the state.

She takes exception to language in the memo in which the corrections secretary used the term “people in our care” to describe inmates.

“Are they really in your care or are they in your custody?” she said. “It seems they are trying to soften the impact of what the individual has done.”
Trying to soften the impact? She ignores the impact incarceration itself has, no matter which words are used. Being separated from loved ones is the punishment.

And yes, inmates are people in our care. When someone is removed from the community and any chance to care for him or herself, they are in our care. The fact of being incarcerated does not mean it is moral to treat inmates poorly.
To Fairweather, they are still serving time for an offense they have committed. That makes them offenders while they are in the prison system.

“At the end of the day, they have victimized someone and they have offended someone’s rights,” Fairweather said. “Why not call it what it is?”
What it is?

Here is what it is: Most inmates will return to the community. Do you want them to come back having had no encouragement that they can change? Treating them--and referring to them--as human beings is encouraging them.

Instead of sending an inmate back to family and employers as someone constantly reminded of something he surely cannot forget, let's send him back as someone who was constantly reminded that he is a person, capable of bettering himself.

Saying that he is in our care will not erase his memory.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

ideas from inmates on improving prisons

Everyone has ideas about what prisons should be like. Some want them to be tougher -- no TVs, hard labor, solitary confinement with no books. Hang 'em high. Others want more programs, more education. No death penalty.

What do inmates want? They live there; they ought to have some ideas about how to improve prisons.

And so they do. Five Texas inmates produced a report about their ideas.

They include thoughtful ideas like this one:
Notification of family deaths should be made uniform. Death notices should be verifiable. P olicy should be written to require the person notifying an inmate of a death to sign and date the form and also have the inmate being notified sign and date the form. If for some reason security has to do the death notice, they should be required to fill out this paperwork as well. If the responsible party fails to notify the inmate of the death, they should be held administratively responsible with proper administrative disciplinary action taken.
Good idea. Delivering the news of a death in the family should always be treated with care and sensitivity. If prison employees bungle that task, they should face consequences.

DCJ should encourage chaplains and re-entry departments to coordinate with churches in various communities to welcome inmates into their congregations as part of the reintegration process. This would encourage inmates to surround themselves with positive influences and not return to a life of crime or the criminal environment. 
Some kind of hotline should be made available for inmates' loved ones to file complaints about unit chaplains. Repeated complaints should result in administrative disciplinary action against the chaplain. This would serve as an incentive for the chaplain to maintain professional behavior that will most likely influence rehabilitation among the inmate population and therefore reduce recidivism.
Reducing the chance for re-offending is a thread that runs throughout the 65-page report. Inmates know what will help them stay out of trouble; we should listen to their ideas.

Reducing the burden on the families of inmates is another theme. Families send money to inmates so they can purchase goods to make them more comfortable. Limited commissary selections drive inmates to the black market, costing families (and taxpayers) more.
Commissary is one of the most cherished privileges inmates have. Approximately 40% of TDCJ's population is indigent, yet they still benefit from commissary, either by friends who provide them with things or as payment for some kind of 'hustle,' such as artwork. Most prison chow halls serve food that is poorly prepared, that tastes bad, and that most of the inmates do not want to eat. Commissary provides the ability to buy alternative foods to supplement or replace prison chow.

Unfortunately, commissary also preserves the black market because of its limited selection. For example, since the prison commissaries do not sell any kind of chlorinated powder, such as Tide or Ajax as they used to, inmates turn to the black market and buy stolen bleach and powder detergent from people who work in the laundry. Likewise, commissary will not sell food seasonings such as onion powder, garlic, dehydrated onions and bell peppers, etc, so inmates buy these stolen goods from the kitchen. As a result, the stolen goods do not get put into the general population's laundry or food, and negative behavior (theft and the purchase of stolen goods) continues among the prison population. Another factor to consider is that these goods are stolen at the expense of the taxpayer. ...
TDCJ commissaries should sale [sic] goods that are regularly stolen from unit kitchens and laundry departments. DCJ recently stopped selling a decent powder detergent called Heritage, and immediately black market sales for laundry detergent and bleach increased in the inmate population.
...inmates overwhelmingly agree that if fruits and vegetables were sold in commissary, they would buy them regularly. DCJ will object that inmates would make wine if fruit were sold in commissary. However; inmates make wine without fruit by using fruit juice, mint sticks, raisins stolen from the kitchen, and other black-market items procured in prison. Trying to eliminate the exceptional activities of a few by prohibiting healthy items for all serves no purpose. The wine is still being made! Raw or pre-packaged vegetables and fresh fruit--not the fruit saturated in sugary syrup--should be sold in commissary. Inmates would buy apples, oranges, onions, salads, pre-packaged sandwiches (similar to vending machines), etc., by the sack load if they were available. [My emphasis.]
Prisons work against their own interests when they prohibit commonly used goods. Prohibition has little effect on the availability of those goods; it only changes the market where inmates can buy them. It also creates opportunity for inmates to break the rules. If buying fruit were allowed, inmates would no longer risk additional punishment for buying fruit.

Families of inmates will nod as they read the report. They will see that these five inmates know how families are affected by prison policies and how inmates in general want to lead good lives.

The full report is worth reading.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

who does Jesus look like?

In When Jesus Looks like a Sex Offender, Hugh Hollowell writes about a conversation he had with a deacon from another church.
“What do y’all do about sex offenders in church?” he asked. 
A man named Andy had been coming to their church – a nice, successful, red brick, steeple church – for the last few months. He had attended their adult Sunday School, and everyone liked him.  Andy was an older man, in his late fifties, with a short beard and horn rimmed glasses. He was well read, knew his Bible and listened with rapt attention in the service. He was thinking about joining the church, so he scheduled a meeting with the pastor. 
“That was when it went south. He told the preacher he was a sex offender, and he wanted to join the church,” the deacon said. 
The pastor told him he would have to do some research. He had then called the denomination’s regional office, who said that it was a no-go because of their “safe-child” policy. The pastor then called a meeting of the deacons to let them know what was going on, and my friend said he would talk to me, since I probably had had this come up before. 
“I don’t know what to do. What would you do if a sex offender showed up at your church,” he asked.

What would you do if an adulterer showed up at your church? Or a gambler? Or someone who is currently sexually abusing a child? What would you do if someone who committed armed robbery showed up at your church? What would you do if someone who perpetrated fraud showed up at your church?

Would you know?

The truth is that we sit side-by-side with people with lurid pasts and people who hide a lurid present every day. A co-worker cheats on her husband. A neighbor spends money at the casino instead of putting it away for the kids' college expenses. The neighborhood mechanic sells a little weed. The middle school teacher shoplifts at Victoria's Secret.

Hollowell continues:
“Well, it happens almost every week. I would say, ‘I’m so glad you are here’, and then probably ask him if he wanted to help me serve communion, or lead us in prayer.” 
He looked like he had swallowed something distasteful, so I went on. 
I told him that the sex offender registry as it is currently doesn’t really tell us anything about the person. Getting caught peeing in the bushes near a school, being 21 and having consensual sex with a 17 year old, and molesting a 4 year old are all things that will get you on the registry, but not all of those people are of equal risk to others. 
I also said that all relationships have boundaries, and that it was a great sign that Andy wanted the pastor to know that he needed boundaries. I also told him that a lot of the research shows that recidivism rates for sex offenders are pretty low anyway, and even lower when the perpetrator has a support network, like, you know, a church family.
Hollowell is well-educated about sex offenders. It is true that the recidivism rate for registered citizens is very low. It is true that registered citizens present varying risk levels.

It is also true that people not on the registry present varying risk levels. After all, most arrests--by far--for sex offenses are of someone not on the registry. We accept those varying risk levels without much thought.

Family and community support help offenders of every kind stay out of trouble. Can we all agree that helping someone stay out of trouble is a good thing?

What better way to help someone than to encourage them to come together regularly with like-minded people, whether it is a church or a quilting club?

A church, though, has a history to live up to.
... the Church was allegedly founded by a guy who tended to stick up for people who others had written off, and welcomed those others said were unwelcome because they were unclean. So there is some precedent. 
Yes. There is that.
He thanked me, and as he was walking toward the door, stopped, turned back and said, “So he could come to church with you guys, right? It wouldn’t be a problem?” 
One wonders if the word pusillanimous echoes in that deacon's mind.
I assure him it wouldn’t. He said he would talk to the pastor and let me know if there were more questions.
Think about this. A deacon doesn't want a sex offender in his congregation but he has no objection to the sex offender joining a different congregation. If the deacon genuinely believes the sex offender poses a danger to his congregation, then he has just foisted that danger on the more accepting congregation. That says safety concerns are only a good cover.

If safety is not the concern, then perhaps the deacon thinks sex offenders are something distasteful.
The easiest thing in the world to do is to confuse your comfort with your safety, and it is easy to be scared of what we do not know. And the work of relationship and accountability is much harder than telling a man like Andy he has to go worship elsewhere. After all, no one in your church is going to fault you for trying to “keep them safe”. 
The problem is, the gospels tell us nothing about our safety, but do say that people like Andy – the underdogs, the pariahs, the unclean and the forgotten – are actually Jesus in disguise, and that when we reject them, we reject Jesus himself.
So by all means, pray to God, and sing your organ music and pass the plate and preach about Jesus. But if you do that, you have to be prepared for what to do when he shows up, looking like a sex offender.
What does Jesus look like in your congregation?

I blogged earlier about churches and their treatment of sex offenders here (and maybe some other posts I have forgotten):

Monday, September 5, 2016

background checks required for school volunteers

Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids passes along a story about requirements for parents who want to volunteer at a Maryland school.
All schools volunteers, including those who come in for 45 minutes to help with parties or the classroom, etc., must complete mandatory online training in identifying child neglect and abuse. I can only imagine how the # of completely unfounded calls is going to skyrocket after this! (Kid’s hair isn’t combed? Doesn’t have the right clothes? Hungry because s/he skipped breakfast? Call CPS!)

But the best part is that anyone who might have “unsupervised access” to kids – including in the hallways – must undergo fingerprinting and background checks. Has there been a rash of abuse by unsupervised adults in the recent past? Of course not, but you can NEVER BE TOO SAFE.
What problem were the new requirements supposed to solve? Does the school have a history of volunteers abusing children? No.

Is there reason to believe that there is a new trend where volunteers abuse children at the school? Nope. Only a feeling.

But if someone wanted to abuse children? He or she would not need a school full of children to accomplish that. A family dinner would suffice. Dance class or Sunday school.

Child abuse is largely a crime of opportunity. Someone who abuses a child is far more likely to abuse a child already nearby, a child who already trusts the abuser. A family member. A teacher. A coach.

Someone who would pass the background check. 

Why would anyone argue against the background check if there is nothing to hide? Lenore says:
This normalization of background checks for any and every adult interacting with kids is based on the assumption that everyone is a child molester until proven otherwise. And yet, what is that “proving” worth? The vast majority of the 850,000 people on the Sex Offender List will not commit a new sex crime...  At the same time, Jerry Sandusky would have passed any background check with flying colors.
Consider that your child's excellent Sunday school teacher could have committed armed robbery in another state twenty years ago and the background check will not discover that because background checks often do not go back that far or examine records in other states. Because the registry is online and because nothing available online can be completely erased, a former sex offender can always be identified as a sex offender, no matter how exemplary his life in the intervening years.

Knowing that someone is listed on the sex offender registry tells us nothing about whether he is dangerous. Even the risk levels that some states assign to registrants tell us nothing. Since the vast majority of registered sex offenders will not offend again, any risk assessment is a weak attempt to distinguish between someone who is almost certainly not going to offend again and someone who is extremely unlikely to offend again.

At Free Range Kids, commenter SKL says:
I think that even if someone has made a mistake in the past, it is probably still better on a macro basis to have that person active in the community. Policies that make people hide in their homes and take their kids out of activities are not better IMO. Kids who are most at risk should be out in the community where they can see how normal people behave, they can talk to someone if they need to, and others can notice if something isn’t right. When you look at the cases of kids most failed by adults, these kids have been isolated and thus denied help. Policies that isolate families are generally bad. [My emphasis.]
A blanket policy for background checks can isolate a family. When someone has spent years or decades overcoming a troubled past, digging it up again in a background check can do great harm. We risk children learning about a parent's past crimes before children are able to understand what that means.

A background check will tell us about someone's crimes but it will say nothing about how his or her life has turned around.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

assessment of danger may depend on level of outrage

Researchers looked at this fact...
In the United States today, leaving children unsupervised is grounds for moral outrage and can lead to criminal charges.
...and decided to learn why people blame parents for putting their children in danger even when the risk of danger is objectively very low.

Why are people outraged when they see--or read about--a parent who leaves a child unattended even when the child is in no danger?
The odds that a child will be abducted by a stranger — one of the fears that motivates constant supervision — are tiny in comparison with the odds that a child will be injured in a car accident. Yet parents aren't under investigation for choosing to drive their kids to school. 
So here's another possibility. It's not that risks to children have increased, provoking an increase in moral outrage when children are left unattended. Instead, it could be that moral attitudes toward parenting have changed, such that leaving children unsupervised is now judged morally wrong. And because it's judged morally wrong, people overestimate the risk. 
This may seem to get things the wrong way around, but it's supported by new research available Monday in the open access journal Collabra. In a series of clever experiments, authors Ashley Thomas, Kyle Stanford and Barbara Sarnecka find evidence that shifting people's moral attitudes toward a parent influences the perceived risk to that parent's unattended child.
In essence, the more immoral people think the parent was in leaving the child alone, the greater the perception of risk for the child.
...would you feel differently about this risk if the circumstances were otherwise the same, but the parents had left the child unattended by accident, or to go to work? In other words, would decreasing the moral outrage one feels toward the parents decrease the perception of risk to the child? 
To get at this question experimentally, Thomas and her collaborators created a series of vignettes in which a parent left a child unattended for some period of time, and participants indicated the risk of harm to the child during that period. For example, in one vignette, a 10-month-old was left alone for 15 minutes, asleep in the car in a cool, underground parking garage. In another vignette, an 8-year-old was left for an hour at a Starbucks, one block away from her parent's location 
To experimentally manipulate participants' moral attitude toward the parent, the experimenters varied the reason the child was left unattended across a set of six experiments with over 1,300 online participants. In some cases, the child was left alone unintentionally (for example, in one case, a mother is hit by a car and knocked unconscious after buckling her child into her car seat, thereby leaving the child unattended in the car seat). In other cases, the child was left unattended so the parent could go to work, do some volunteering, relax or meet a lover. 
Not surprisingly, the parent's reason for leaving a child unattended affected participants' judgments of whether the parent had done something immoral: Ratings were over 3 on a 10-point scale even when the child was left unattended unintentionally, but they skyrocketed to nearly 8 when the parent left to meet a lover. [My emphasis.]
If people let their moral disapproval raise perceived risk beyond the actual risk--the child could be kidnapped!, even when kidnappings-by-stranger are exceptionally rare--imagine how unrealistic their risk assessments of sex offenders must be.

By far, registered citizens are non-violent offenders and--again--by far, will not commit another sex offense. Yet, a list of those offenders is maintained at great expense and communities are warned about sex offenders among them as if their presence puts everyone at risk of sexual assault.

The very existence of the registry encourages outrage toward all who are listed there.

The danger is very low and yet the moral disapproval of registrants leads people to exaggerate the danger. No matter the variation in crimes and levels of seriousness, all sex offenders are seen as dangerous.

Outrageously dangerous.

The registry has increased the opportunity to be outraged about sex offenders as the number of registrable offenses has grown. In some states, labeling public urination as a sex offense has taken what used to be risible and turned it into something deserving of public shame. Instead of telling funny stories (or singing a song!) about a young man streaking across a football field, a young man committed suicide because he faced a life of public shaming on the registry after his arrest for streaking.

Think of that. We are seeing moral outrage aimed at people who committed "crimes" that used to be hijinks. Those hijinks landed them on a list--a list that is used to gin up outrage. Labeling someone as a sex offender opens them up to out-sized moral outrage by people who see only the label.

The moral outrage is greater than some of the crimes deserve and the perception of danger grows right along with the outrage.

Just as moral outrage towards parents has increased, so has the moral outrage toward sex offenders. Just as the danger of leaving a child out of sight has been exaggerated, so has the danger of being near a registered sex offender.

The only way to cool down the unwarranted outrage--and the accompanying exaggeration of danger-- is to abolish the registry altogether.