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Going home: Even sex offenders should get a chance to rejoin society

Last of three parts.

The good news is that Alaska's sex offender treatment program works. The bad news is that a shortage of providers creates a many-months-long waiting list that traps sex offenders from rural Alaska in Anchorage, sometimes homeless.

With 250 sex offenders coming out of Alaska prisons annually, 45 percent of them Native, this is a public safety threat and a humanitarian fiasco. We must do better.

The popular belief that sex offenders cannot reform is false. Sex offenders are much less likely to commit a new crime after prison than other criminals. In Alaska, their rate of re-arrest for sex crimes after four years is only 3 percent, according to Department of Corrections data.

After going through Alaska's model of long-term cognitive-behavioral therapy, high-risk sex offenders eventually become no more likely than a typical member of the public to commit a new sex offense, according to a department white paper. Low-risk offenders reach that point on the day they are released from prison.

Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the country. The problem is worst in rural Alaska. Most sex crimes are against children.

Victims suffer more deeply and for longer than the rest of us can possibly imagine. I accept and affirm their lasting pain and the belief of many victims that the men who did this to them should suffer just as much.

But that cannot be society's primary goal. It is more important to avoid future crimes, even if speeding treatment and letting offenders get stable jobs and homes may look like mercy.

Some of the Alaska Native sex offenders I met at the nonprofit Partners for Progress Re-entry Center seemed sincerely sorry and eager to make amends. No purpose is served by putting them on the streets.

Grace Harrington, a case worker at the center for the last three years, said her clients have made her believe in humanity in a new way.

"I thought I understood what sex offenses meant when I started working here," she said. "My mind has been changed because of the human beings that I've met and the interactions that I've had and the empathy that's grown. Because I truly believe in human rights, and I do believe in human beings changing, and I've seen it with my eyes."

Whether sexual predators can change their deviant drives may be doubtful. But therapy can stop them from acting on those impulses by teaching them to think morally.

Laura Brooks, Corrections' deputy director of Health and Rehabilitation Services, recently explained the department's successful containment model at the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission's Sex Offender Work Group. The commission is looking at sex offense laws at the request of the Legislature.

The model uses long-term monitoring of parolees, including polygraph tests, combined with therapy that focuses on changing their criminal thinking patterns through discussion and workbooks. The therapy can last two years and the waiting list to begin is as long as six months.

Commissioner of Corrections Dean Williams said the department has been unable to find enough therapy providers and polygraph administrators to keep up with the need for treatment.

This is a good place to invest.

Cost effectiveness is highest of any state criminal justice program, among more than two dozen measured, according to a study for the commission by the Alaska Justice Information Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

For every dollar spent on community sex offender treatment, victims and the system saved more than $6 in avoided costs for repeat offenses, the study said.

I was surprised by this information. I had bought into a meme floating since the 1980s that sex offenders are broken people who will always re-offend. That belief produced long sentences, the sex offender registry and, in some communities, limitations on where offenders can live.

When the Alaska Legislature created our sex offender registry, it made it retroactive for people already convicted. A challenge to that after-the-fact punishment went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the law in 2003 because sex offender recidivism is so "frightening and high."

That decision justified ever more long-term punishments for sex offenders nationally. But a 2015 research brief by the U.S. Department of Justice found that many of those measures, including the registry, either don't work or have mixed evidence of effectiveness.

According to that report, most research shows the registries have no impact on preventing sex offenses. However, registered offenders were often denied housing and jobs. Eight percent said they were assaulted, as recently happened in Anchorage.

Our disgust and hostility against rapists and sexual abusers of children is justified and helps stop these crimes.

A released sex offender told me that his experience in prison alone would be enough to prevent a repeat offense. He said sex offenders are so reviled by other prisoners in Alaska institutions they must pay protection money.

But punishment should not foreclose redemption when both sides are ready.

In Bethel, Corrections offers treatment on a restorative model, fitting better into Native culture. Some Native sex offenders I met wanted to apologize and atone for their crimes with their victims and communities.

The urban model might not work as well for them. Some Native offenders with poor educations or intellectual problems caused by long-term substance abuse have trouble understanding the abstract concepts in the treatment workbooks for their cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Alaska's epidemic of sex abuse and assault is our collective shame.

We have a program that seems to work. State leaders should do whatever it takes to expand the capacity for treatment, get rid of wait lists, and offer it in the communities where parolees need it, in a way they can understand, and relevant to their culture and the recovery of their victims.

Keeping Alaskans safe from sex crimes should be our most important goal. But letting Alaska Natives go home after they finish their sentences is also important.

Their way home could also be a route to safer communities for all of us.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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