Sex Offenders’ Second Chance Starts Here

Staff Writer

They crossed a line you cannot cross.

Some of them got their kicks viewing child pornography. Others lured children into sex or forced their way upon women.

And now their grim faces stare back at us from the Megan’s Law website, Pennsylvania’s hall of shame.

The sex offenders number more than 10,000, and if you want to know more about any one of them, a lot of information is there: where they live, the color of their eyes, whether they have tattoos.
You can even find out the model and color of the cars they drive. Plate numbers, too.
Anyone convicted of a sex offense can have little expectation of privacy. Since 2005, the Megan’s Law website has made sure of that.

But as empowering as it feels to check instantly on who in your community is free after having served time for a sex crime, does that information do much to protect us? Are our communities safer in any significant way?

Beyond punishment

Or have we mainly succeeded in turning sex offenders into modern-day lepers, creating such a climate of stigma and fear that we’ve undermined any chance a repentant ex-offender has of atoning for his (or her) mistake and contributing to society?

These are questions motivating Jim Kalish of Lancaster. During the five years he taught high school equivalency classes at York County Prison, he became aware of the obstacles that trip up convicted sex offenders.

He taught one prisoner, for instance, who remained in jail four months after his release date because he couldn’t get a home plan approved. Thinking there must be a better way, Kalish found out how other countries, Canada in particular, recruit volunteers in a parolee’s community to help him start over.

Kalish, 75, the retired director of Washington, D.C.’s Center for Nonprofit Advancement, now feels called to advocate for similar research-backed programs here.

In May, Kalish founded a local organization named Community Renewal for Sex Offenders. It is supported by a dozen people ” clergy, clinicians, educators.

Kalish’s point is not to excuse sexual offenders or treat them lightly. It’s that policies emphasizing punishment over rehabilitation are failing and might be counterproductive.

Someone who leaves prison without help, a reasonable place to live and an opportunity to support himself is set up to fail, especially if everyone he meets treats him like a pariah.

And failure, of course, could mean he’ll hurt more people.

Unpopular cause

Kalish’s advocacy has so far prompted the Lancaster Area Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program to get involved. The nonprofit agency wants to run a Circles of Support and Accountability program and is seeking funds for a pilot project.

Circle programs started in Canada in the 1990s. Small groups of volunteers plan for a sex offender’s release, assist with his return to society and provide long-term oversight. Jon Singer at LAVORP said studies show Circle programs reduce recidivism by two-thirds.
Kalish hopes that the more people learn about Circle programs and other initiatives the less they will view all sex offenders as beyond redemption.

“Sexual violence is a terrible social problem that harms us all,” Kalish said, but given support “most people labeled as sex offenders can live in the community without reoffending.”
Kalish knows it’s a tough sell, but he’s pressing forward.

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