Reading Russell Banks’ fascinating new novel, The Lost Memory of Skin, has inspired me to blog about a public health problem that strays from my usual mandate. Banks’ book is about a 21-year-old man who was convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old girl (statutory rape), and he now finds himself homeless and living under a causeway in a southern Florida city that is a dead ringer for Miami. The sex offender, a naive and lonely young man who was raised by a neglectful single mother, is befriended by a university professor who is doing research on sex offenders and has some dark secrets of his own.

Banks, an award-winning novelist who has written 17 books, obviously did his homework for this book because his observations about the misguided ways we treat sex offenders are right on target, according to recent studies and experts who treat sex offenders.

Banks makes the persuasive case, for example, that the Megan laws that have sprung up in every city, town and state in the country and prohibit sex offenders from living with miles of any school or public place that attracts children are actually making things worse, not better. And he’s right, says Tim App, who runs a national sex offender management program.

The residency and electronic monitoring requirements instituted by the Megan laws are doing nothing to reduce sex offenses, App says. Instead, they’ve spawned a surge of homelessness among convicted sex offenders and made it more difficult for many of them to get treatment and live without offending.

“The residency requirements are driving them underground so they become detached from what keeps them stable,” says App, who is CEO of the Counseling and Psychotherapy Center and a former prison superintendent and law enforcement officer. “When you isolate sex offenders, they become lonely and stressed and are more likely to re-offend.”

App says many in law enforcement now recognize that the residency laws are counterproductive, as is much of the focus on electronic monitoring — making sex offenders wear electronic ankles (as the youthful offender in Banks’ novel does).

“The ankle is not going to prevent sexual assaults,” he says. “I would put all that money into mandatory treatment and supervision.”

The right kind of treatment, App and others say, can be very effective in keeping sex offenders from re-offending. Even though sex offenders typically have high rates of recidivism, he notes that the recidivism rate among convicted offenders in his program is only two percent.

” Sex offending behavior is much like alcoholism,” he notes. “You can treat it and reach recovery and as long as you keep the support system intact, you can prevent a relapse.”

App cites a highly successful Maine program that his group runs, where convicted offenders are in a four-year program with the first two years in a 24/7 therapeutic environment. They are then transitioned into the community, where they are supervised by a “containment team” of four professionals, a sex offender specific probation officer, a sex offender clinician, a victim advocate and a polygraph officer who does periodic polygraph tests to ensure offenders aren’t lying about their behavior.

So far “we’ve had 50 offenders transition to the street and we’ve not had any new assaults,” he says. Like Banks, App believes that sex offenders need to be identified and treated like average citizens who have gone astray, not “cast out like pariahs.”

You might want to read Banks’ gripping book and see if you agree. Even if you don’t, I think you’ll find it’s a great read.

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