Let My People Go, Too

by Daniel A. Rosen |

I am a registered sex offender serving five years in prison for soliciting a detective posing as a teen online. Let’s get that out of the way up front.

If you’re still reading: The Virginia Department of Corrections is working to effect the early release of up to 2,000 state inmates due to the Coronavirus outbreak, and they should consider that many of my fellow sex offenders in this residential treatment program can be safely released too.

Many of the inmates I live with remain hopeful about going home – an actual cheer went up on the cellblock last Wednesday when the law’s passage was broadcast on the nightly news – but history shows they’re likely to be disappointed.

The “COVID-19 Response Inmate Early Release Plan” published by the DOC today makes clear that their optimism is misplaced. It specifies that anyone with a sex offense – even non-violent, non-contact convictions such as computer crimes – will be last in line for early release.

To date, about 1300 inmates and 100 staff in Virginia prisons have tested positive for COVID-19. To try and reduce the spread, Governor Northam proposed that inmates with less than one year remaining who pose no threat to public safety should be considered for early release. The Assembly mercifully agreed with him during the April 22 veto session.

Now it falls to the VADOC to implement the Early Release Plan and decide who to include. Virginia has far more than two thousand inmates with less than twelve months left on their sentence. The DOC is rightfully prioritizing those who have somewhere safe to go and won’t burden already-stretched public resources.

All those eligible must further be classified as low- to medium-level recidivism risks and have a record of good behavior. Inmates with underlying medical conditions are a high priority. Class 1 felons and Sexually Violent Predators are disqualified entirely.

The “Offense History” criteria goes on to list nine categories of eligibility, in priority order: Non-violent offenders will be considered first; weapons offenses, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter next; robbery, felony assault and abduction follow; murder is the eighth category; ninth and last are those with (non-violent) sex offenses. Murderers are apparently less of a threat that even the lowest-level sex offenders.

Too often, when states look to restore voting rights, reinstate early parole, or reduce prison populations, they routinely exclude those convicted of Class 1 felonies and all sex offenders. There’s little constituency for releasing some of us, and plenty of downside risk for politicians who still cringe at the spectre of Willie Horton.

Local TV news outlets love to sensationalize parole approvals for violent and sex offenders, no matter how many decades have been served or how much rehabilitation has taken place. The politics of fear pays large dividends, and mercy has few champions.

Of course, popular culture (I’m looking at you, “Law and Order: SVU”) also likes to portray sex offenders as dangerous and irredeemable recidivists with incurable predilections. But many here in Virginia’s residential treatment program for sex offenders have worked hard to ensure they never again create another victim. And according to some recent studies, sex offenders have lower recidivism rates than all other types of released prisoners.

I’ve seen firsthand the positive changes that this treatment program has produced; damaged people are finding ways to change their lives and get better. Many will be released in the next year in any case, with all the normal supervision and restrictions that come with being a registered sex offender. A good number are elderly and in poor health, having spent many years in the corrections system under difficult conditions.

Granting sex offenders early release does not exclude them from the scrutiny of supervised probation and the registry. But it will give them a chance to survive this pandemic, lessen the burden on the DOC, and give those of us who remain behind bars a better chance to stay healthy under impossible conditions.

After all, we share tiny cells with strangers, we jostle for phones and space in the dayroom, and the ‘sneeze guards’ we wear are of little use. Social distancing is an impossibility. Reducing our ranks can only help, and the VADOC should give all eligible prisoners the opportunity to serve the rest of their sentences at home, away from overcrowded prison cellblocks. Non-violent sex offenders don’t belong last in line, behind kidnappers, murderers, and other violent offenders.

[Editor’s note: 193 inmates and 56 staff at Greensville Correctional Center have tested positive for COVID-19 so far.]

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