Since June 2005, I have had some kind of contact -- telephone conversation, face-to-face meeting, e-mail exchange, letter exchange -- with about 5,000 convicted criminals or their relatives, counselors and friends. (The number might be closer to 6,000, but I stopped keeping count a couple of years ago.)
Some of the contact has been substantive, providing material for this column on the challenges facing ex-offenders in the transition from prison to free society.
A lot of the contact has been perfunctory -- the ex-offenders give me their names and addresses, and I mail them a list of companies that might hire them or agencies that might help them. (Note to those who have contacted me in the last six weeks: We are updating the list and will get it to you as soon as possible.) In my years of trying to steer ex-offenders to re-entry programs or jobs, I have heard every kind of story, from the 20-something East Baltimore heroin dealer who wanted to "stop sellin' poison to my people" to the West Baltimore father who wanted to get his son off the street and into an apprenticeship program.
The men and women who called here had been convicted of all kinds of crimes: armed robbery, aggravated assault, forging checks, possession with intent to distribute heroin -- and mostly the latter. Tired of prison, they wanted to find work not prohibited by law. It's hard to say how many were earnest, but most certainly seemed to be when they first contacted me.
And I was willing to help them, to the extent that I could.
But I haven't been so willing to help sex offenders.
About a year into writing columns on this subject, I started getting calls for help from middle-aged men who had been convicted of various degrees of sexual crimes -- possession of child pornography, assault, child molestation -- and I had a bad reaction. You might call it the creeps.
I didn't want to help them, but more importantly, I didn't think I could. While some Maryland companies have given jobs to recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, former drug dealers and car thieves, it didn't seem likely they would hire someone on the state sex offender registry.
Plus, those companies, all admirable for their willingness to give second chances, didn't deserve sex offenders at their door. So I wasn't about to refer any of them. My initial interest in all this was in getting drug dealers off the streets of Baltimore, not in helping middle-aged rapists and perverts find jobs.
I just didn't want to be associated with second chances for sexual predators.
I'm sure that would be the reaction of most people, even those of you who have expressed general sympathy for ex-offenders seeking employment. Most readers who've given an opinion about this agree that the United States needs more corrections in corrections, stronger re-entry planning and more opportunity for adults once released from our prisons.
But I doubt the majority feel that way about sexual offenders.
It's understandable. The nature of their crimes, especially those involving children, causes an acutely visceral reaction. Plus, public opinion has been stoked by grandstanding politicians for years. So we have online registries and community notification policies, in the name of public safety. We have federal laws on sexual offenders, too.
But beware, fellow citizens. This winter in Annapolis, we have dozens of new bills -- the count the other day was 75 and growing -- to toughen the many sexual offender laws that already exist. It's an election year, coming on the heels of the highly publicized kidnapping and murder of an 11-year-old girl, and filing a bill on sexual offenders is a tough-on-crime guarantee. The cry is, literally, "Do something!" And that, apparently, could mean anything: expand the online offender registry to include juveniles and anyone who committed crimes back in the 1980s and even the 1970s, eliminate good behavior credits for sex offenders in prison, and require lifetime monitoring of some offenders.
As I've admitted: I am neither sympathetic toward nor inclined to help sexual offenders. But we appear to be piling on, so that those who successfully change their thinking and their behavior might never get up and get going again. When so many politicians, including the governor, exploit an issue such as this, that's when I really get the creeps.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.