In Puritan America, a married woman’s illicit affair with a minister landed her in jail. After her release, Hester Prynne was sentenced to forever wear a big red “A” on her dress. 

Nearly 375 years later, the U.S. continues to be scandalized, tantalized and perplexed by sex, especially about sex offenders. Tough on crime, we’re still struggling to learn: 

  • Why domestic violence and incest are so under-reported by victims? 
  • Why most people think every sexual offender is a serial rapist? 
  • Why, even among therapists, many continue to believe sex-offenders to be untreatable? 
  • Why supervision after offenders’ release tends to-wards punitive rather than restorative? 

It’s time to bring the subject of sex crime out of the dark ages, time to help victims shed the shame and trauma of their experience. It’s also time to allow offenders an opportunity to show they can change, make amends and start to earn back trust and acceptance from society.

Punishment...Get Thee Behind Me...

Have you ever thought that punishment is an effective strategy for changing one’s behavior? Oppressive overlords? Punitive parents? Traumatizing teachers? Badgering bosses? Ugh!

By contrast, how different it feels to opt for a change in behavior by invitation, partnering perhaps with a mentor in your life?

Given the choice, why does the US justice system still bet the bank on punishment? Latent Puritanism? Habit? Money?

As a volunteer in a number of prisons and jails, I have seen punishment used far more frequently than motivation, mentorship, modeling, or inspiration. Though incarceration does wake some people up, it mostly works the opposite way, creating rebellion, more anger, more violence.

Prison programming – classes, work experience, recreation, counseling, life skills training, religious services – these are things that are most likely to stimulate a change in criminal thinking. And yet, most classes, services and counseling I have witnessed in prison are based on the cognitive-behavioral therapy model. Generally, the class features an “expert” standing in front of rows of seated students, pointing out to them what their thinking errors are, telling them what they must learn. Then, with no further support, the inmates are sent back into the toxic prison environment and expected to change.

Newer strategies begin with the idea that people can only learn and change in a trusted environment. So these classrooms are often arranged in a circle, rather than rows of desks. Whether the vehicle is dialectical behavior treatment, nonviolent communication, emotional intelligence, restorative justice or my own brand of "process" treatment, they all have common goals and elements. Trust is built by eliminating the artificial boundary of “us and them”. The “expert” is more of a facilitator. Students are seen as real people, not their criminal record. They direct their own learning, their own treatment, their own process of healing.

The classes or treatment involve lots of interaction. They are also highly relational and without heirarchy. People learn through real life experience, not just theory or memorized lists of attributes. In that sense, learning happens in the context of a supportive community. When you’re seen for your potential, when you find meaning, acceptance and enjoyment in learning, hope for your future becomes possible again. That’s when you can begin to see a shift in behavior.

Students are not afraid about taking responsibility if they know they will be supported. They will be more open to admitting failure if they know that failure does not mean further punishment.

In life, we all have benefited from getting another chance to prove our worth.  Most of us would say we’ve learned from our mistakes. Sex offenders, all of whom have made a tragic mistake, are generally no different. The large majority are not at risk for a repeat offence. Only a fraction are what we’d call habitual offenders.

Having a community that accommodates these people is important. Those having served their time – preferably with some sex offender treatment completed – should be accepted back in society like I’ve accepted them into my groups. If agreements can be made, if proper checks and balances are in place, the public is better served by working proactively with former sex offender than shunning them.

We don’t thrive in isolation. Nobody does.

Sexual Privilege...who Pays Depends on Gender and Economic Status

Sexual Privilege...who Pays Depends on Gender and Economic Status

The Value of Peer-to-Peer Treatment

The Value of Peer-to-Peer Treatment