A four-time sex offender who readily acknowledges his crimes, Cary Verse does not ask for our sympathy. But his very existence is leaving a small community in Contra Costa County with no choice but to deal with child sexual assault. It may be that the most effective approach is grounded in compassion and an acknowledgement of the humanity of even the most egregious offenders.
Verse has been searching for a home for more than two years—a search that spanned the length of California yet turned up few willing to take a chance on him. Those who came forward to help were hounded by relatives and neighbors and withdrew their offers. Driven by community protests from transient hotels to shelters and from town to town for the past year, Verse will now appear before a judge on Friday to hear whether the community of Bay Point will allow him to rebuild his life there.
Verse is recognized throughout California because of the publicity surrounding his case, but also because his name and photo appear on the state's sex offender registry Web site. Proponents of wide dissemination of information about sex offenders argue that registries are a powerful tool for parents to protect their children. But all too often, the registries become vehicles for the vicious ostracism and pointless torment of the men and women identified on them.
Branded with the label "sex offender," people like Verse find it difficult, if not impossible, to rebuild their lives. Treated as pariahs, registered sex offenders—even those who committed offenses long ago—cannot find employment or housing. They are driven out of communities, sometimes even out of entire states, forced to live in tents in prison parking lots, and even re-imprisoned simply because they cannot find anyone willing to rent housing to them. As nursing homes begin to screen for sex offenders, many will have a hard time finding a place to grow old and die.
Some crimes test our capacity for forgiveness. Child sexual assault is a parent's worst nightmare. And it is as pervasive as it is devastating. Experts estimate that more than 300,000 children are sexually abused in the United States each year, and at least 25 percent of women and 10 percent of men experienced some form of sexual abuse during childhood. But community notification will not prevent sexual offenses against children that are perpetrated by family members or acquaintances, which amount to more than 90 percent of such offenses. Some even claim that registries deter some victims from reporting sexual assault when the offender is a family member, and the privacy of the family is at stake.
Even the most dangerous serial offenders will eventually be released from prison, and they will have to live somewhere. If we are more concerned about the safety of our communities than we are about unending punishment, however, we must find a way to deal with those who return from incarceration and treatment. Banishment is not the answer. Communities will be safer when sex offenders are able to re-integrate, receive support for behavior change, establish new adult relationships and face effective mechanisms for monitoring and accountability. Pushing sex offenders to the margins of our society, with nothing left to lose, only increases the chance of recidivism.
Whether Cary Verse is allowed to live in Bay Point is a question that may determine whether he, and others like him, have a right to live anywhere at all in our society. The debate surrounding Verse's proposed move forces us to confront what will become of sex offenders who have done all that the criminal-justice system and society have asked of them—and what our answers say about us.