Are we too hard on sex offenders?

RHYMES with crazy Lenore Skenazy  thumbnailBY LENORE SKENAZY  |  Emily Horowitz spends a lot of time with people other professors don’t. Criminals. Domestic violence victims. Domestic violence perps. Sex offenders. Guys convicted of murder. 

A teacher of sociology and criminology at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, she introduces her students to the same folks she is meeting in an effort to change the lives of all of them.

Horowitz is one of those people who walks the walk. Before coming to St. Francis, she got her Ph.D. in sociology at Yale, concentrating in women’s studies and decided to spend a year in Brooklyn’s domestic violence court, watching as women finally got justice. 

But…that wasn’t what she saw.

“It was just poor and unemployed men being slammed over and over,” says Horowitz, a mom of four. 

Horowitz agrees that if a man slapped his partner, he should be punished, but she thought the harsh sentences she witnessed weren’t designed to improve anyone’s prospects.

She began to regard the criminal justice system with curiosity: How much was overkill baked into the system? 

To find out, she started inviting convicts who had been exonerated to speak to her class. People such as Marty Tankleff, who falsely confessed to killing his parents; Jesse Friedman, notorious from the movie “Capturing the Friedmans”; and even Bernard Baran. 

Who? 

“Bernard was a working class, gay teenager who dropped out of high school in the late ’80s because he was bullied. He started working at a day care center,” says Horowitz. “But a couple went to the head of the day care and said they didn’t want a ‘homo’ watching their son. And the day care said, ‘We can’t fire a person because of that.’ Lo and behold, the couple alleged that Baron molested their son,” says Horowitz.

Baran was found guilty and given three life sentences. The judge said that putting a gay man in a day care center was like putting a chocoholic in a candy store — as if being a gay man and being a child molester were the same thing. 

The National Center for Reason and Justice championed Baran’s case, and he was finally freed after more than 20 years behind bars. 

He told the class what it was like to be a gay man in prison who had been convicted of child molestation: They put cigarettes out on his head. He was beaten. He was raped more than 30 times. 

As he told his story, students wept. Those tears — and those students — will go on to make a difference, Horowitz says, because many of her students go on to careers in law enforcement. 

“Now they will have a much more nuanced view of the people they’re dealing with,” she said. 

A couple of years ago, Horowitz taught a women’s studies class at the Bedford Hills women’s prison in Westchester. There she learned that until the ’90s, prisoners could get financial aid for college courses. New York State put an end to that, and the number of inmates getting an education plummeted — even though the recidivism rate for people who get college degrees in prison is under five percent.

But a trickle of students still do manage to take classes behind bars, and Horowitz is determined to make sure that at least some of them get the chance earn their degrees once freed. So this school year, she arranged for five formerly incarcerated students to matriculate at St. Francis. One has already proved such an amazing scholar — straight A’s — that the school is sending her on a Franciscan pilgrimage to Assisi. After all, St. Francis was all about helping and forgiveness.

Her latest project is the just-published book, “Protecting Our Kids? How Sex Offender Laws are Failing Us” (Praeger, 2015). 

Ever the researcher, Horowitz discovered that the belief that sex offenders must be continually monitored to keep kids safe is based on fear, not fact. 

“Once people are no longer a threat, you don’t have to punish them to the point where you destroy their lives,” she says. “I’m not pro sex offender, I’m pro move-on-with-your-life-once-you’ve-been-punished.”

She’ll be reading from her book this Sunday night, June 7, at the Bluestockings bookstore, 172 Allen St., on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, at 7 p.m. Admission is free. 

If you’re wondering what it looks like when an academic talks the talk, walks the walk, and changes the lives of future cops and former convicts, don’t miss it. 

I know I won’t. 

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and author of the book and blog Free-Range Kids. 

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