Commentary: Who are sex offenders? And why are we so afraid of them?

By Jeanine Kleimo

Twelve years ago, when we agreed to include those on the “Sex Offender Registry” in our shelter, I was concerned. I did not know who was classified as a sex offender or anything about the behavior or issues they might present to us. Like most women, the term “sex offender” conjured scary pictures of rape and violence.

Twelve years later, I can honestly say that I have known hundreds of men who have been labeled as sex offenders. Not one has caused me a moment of personal discomfort. In fact, those labeled as sex offenders are among the most successful groups of men we assist: most are eager to overcome this label and to prove their worth in our community by getting jobs and settling into normal and productive lives.

Jeanine Kleimo

A significant share did something wrong at a young age: the most common situation was for a young man in his late teens or early 20s to have consensual sexual relations with a minor female. In many cases, parties and alcohol were involved, with a young lady asserting that she was older than she was and a young man easily dominated by hormones.

We have learned that men’s brains do not fully develop their capacity for rational thought and action until around the age of 25, making it easier for them to be ruled by forces other than what a developed and rational mind would know to be “the right thing to do.” Fortunately, the courts also recognize this.

Many simply took advantage of the opportunity to take advantage of an available girl.

Those who got caught in such circumstances were imprisoned. In some cases, parents of a willing girl were successful in bringing charges against the young man involved. Many of the young men did not have the resources for legal counsel and were encouraged to take a “plea” by their public defender.

Some who did so were promised only probation, never dreaming that future changes in the law would require them to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.

Another very large percentage of those labeled as “sex offenders” are in prison for looking at inappropriate pictures. There is no evidence that doing so leads to acting out, yet they are punished harshly, with sentences of eight, 20, 50 years! Those men need counseling, not prison.

Did these boys and men do the wrong thing? Any parent of a daughter is likely to say YES! Was it a criminal act that should serve as a barrier to their success for the rest of their lives? Surely not!

To be fair, some sex offenders have committed worse acts than those described above. Those who are serial pedophiles are locked away for long periods of time, as are those who commit rape or other acts of violence. Those who are imprisoned as young men typically do not have the motivation to re-offend. In fact, a miniscule percentage re-offend at a far lower rate than with most crimes.

Their imprisonment and subsequent probation include participation in classes that teach them how to counteract the behaviors that got them into trouble. Others were falsely accused and suffered the consequences of a plea bargain they were told (incorrectly) would make all this go away. A former Department of Corrections official advised us that 95% of sex offenders never re-offend.

What has been the experience with sheltering hundreds of those on the Sex Offender Registry? Not one sex offender who has resided in the Dover Interfaith shelter has committed a new crime while in the shelter. A very small number were returned to prison for violations of probation, which include such infractions as staying out past a curfew of 10 p.m. or being in a location in which there are children.

Most offenders must wear monitoring devices on their ankles that indicate their whereabouts, taking them off to recharge the devices only at night while they are in the shelter.

Once men come into the shelter — typically by 5:30 p.m. —they must remain in the building until 7 a.m. the next day. All who are sex offenders are carefully monitored to ensure that they are where they are required to be. They must comply with all terms of their probation in order to remain in the shelter. This may include attendance at meetings or participation in mental health or substance abuse day treatment as well.

No one is allowed to have visitors, to go to parties or social events outside the shelter, or to do much more than work or seek employment along with attending case management and counseling as needed to enable them to get their lives back on track.

Men on the sex offender registry find it challenging to secure employment and nearly impossible to find housing. Dover Interfaith is active in developing housing opportunities so that they might be able to live and work in a location that meets their needs.

Nearly every day, faith and community groups come into the shelter to provide dinner to our residents, and most groups have a majority of women. Most Dover Interfaith volunteers are women, many of them working with shelter residents and other homeless adults multiple times a week.

In these many thousands of hours of service, no woman has ever been attacked or harassed.

What about children? While we do not permit children in the shelter, a few facts are useful to round out an understanding of reality: First, only 10% of youth experiencing sexual abuse are abused by strangers. 30% of abuse is perpetrated by family members, while 60% is attributable to persons the family knows and trusts. 40% of youth sexual abuse is committed by older or more powerful youth.

“Stranger danger” is a myth.

For the Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing, strict rules and oversight prevent any interaction between shelter residents and children in the neighborhood. Our mission is to guide and to give men a chance to become good and productive citizens. There are already many hundreds of former shelter residents living and working among the residents of Central Delaware. We seek to partner with all who support that mission, and toward that end I submit this to give you a better understanding of the situation.

Jeanine Kleimo is chairwoman of the Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing.