Town of Harmony officials are concerned about a former motel now used as a treatment center and purportedly housing as many as 10 sex offenders.
They say the center is in violation of a conditional use permit, and maybe they’re right. But we wonder whether these same officials would be worrying as much if the center housed only recovering alcoholics or drug addicts. Would this alleged permit violation matter if the center were, say, housing troubled teens who committed non-sex crimes?
Probably not, or at least not as much. Nothing disrupts the relative calm of a community like news of a sex offender moving in or living nearby. Parents worry about their kids’ safety and immediately consider the proximity of schools, parks and churches. Many people view sex offenders as uncontrollable monsters who will re-offend at the first opportunity.
There are, of course, stories about those who re-offend and commit heinous crimes, but they’re the exception. Intense media scrutiny of a small number of cases distorts people’s perceptions of sex crimes, making the sex offender into society’s greatest nemesis.
But the fact is that sex offense recidivism rates are low.
Gazette reporter Jonah Beleckis makes that point in his Page 1A story today, highlighting how sex offender recidivism rates are lower than general recidivism rates. And as Beleckis discovered as part of a 2018 story, “Misplaced trust,” the vast majority of sex crimes involve people the sex offender already knows. Of the 40 people charged in 2017 with first- or second-degree sexual assault of a child in Rock and Walworth counties, all but one knew their victims, according to a Gazette analysis of district attorney data.
While sex offenders rarely target children at random, many people believe the opposite. Unfortunately, many officials fail to combat these myths and actually reinforce them through their comments and practices, such as Halloween night checks of sex offender homes. Janesville is among the many police departments that visit sex offender homes and then report those results to the public.
Myths about sex crimes feed illogical reactions to isolated incidents that aren’t even incidents. Columnist Lenore Skenazy featured one such reaction in her column last week. She described how the mayor of Baltimore recently warned residents about white vans after a woman complained on social media that two men in a white van had been staring at her, triggering fears across the internet about men in other white vans. Skenazy noted there’s no data suggesting people in white vans gravitate toward criminality.
For that matter, we’re unaware of any particular incidents stemming from the treatment center in the town of Harmony beyond concerns about the permit violation. Officials and residents haven’t shared any stories about sex offenders at this facility engaging in any illegal activities or probation or parole violations.
The Harmony Town Board should be careful in its handling of this former motel’s permit. If there’s a way to adjust the permit to get the property into compliance, the board should consider it.
We also would like for the center itself to break its silence and start communicating with the board and public about its operations.
Unless an incident has occurred there posing a danger to the community, the board should refrain from taking action that perpetuates myths about sex offenders and does little to enhance public safety.