Guest Column: Perpetual homelessness just won’t work

County Executive Steve Bellone (center) touts the benefits of the county's new sex offender monitoring efforts in Hauppauge last week. (Credit: Tim Gannon)
County Executive Steve Bellone (center) touts the benefits of the county’s new sex offender monitoring efforts in Hauppauge last week. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

East End towns and villages are now under political and media pressure to participate in Suffolk County’s sex offender monitoring program. This program is operated, under contract with the county, by the Parents for Megan’s Law advocacy organization. Taking a position against a new sex offender monitoring program, here or anywhere, will not help me win any popularity contests. However, I think it’s important for us to take an objective look at this program’s potential impact on the community, its taxpayers and those it targets before jumping on the “Let’s get tough with sex offenders” bandwagon. 

Before retiring, I worked as a case manager for several nonprofit mental health agencies that provided services to sex offenders with mental health and substance abuse problems. Having worked with dozens of registered sex offenders during the past 20 years, I can share with you that all the laws passed to restrict where they can live have created a large class of modern-day untouchables who are forced into homelessness and have great difficulty finding and maintaining treatment for mental health and substance abuse issues.

In Suffolk County, the Department of Social Services is responsible for housing homeless sex offenders. Here’s how it works: Once a week, every Monday, homeless sex offenders are moved from one location to another in Suffolk County. The policy allows homeless sex offenders to stay only one week at any specific shelter or other housing paid for by DSS. This goes on 52 weeks out of the year and involves significant costs to taxpayers in terms of not only housing but also transporting the sex offenders by taxi to new housing every week. We should also be aware that just last month, the New York State Court of Appeals overturned Nassau County laws that restricted where registered sex offenders could live. The court essentially indicated that only the state could pass such legislation. This ruling is also likely to impact Suffolk County, where we have also created a hodgepodge of local laws restricting where sex offenders can reside.

The creation of the county DSS plan to house homeless sex offenders was the result of political pressure from various towns and elected officials who complained that their particular localities were being saturated with homeless sex offenders. The plan makes little sense in terms of trying to provide a stable system where these offenders can be monitored safely over the long term. Think about it: Every week the sex offender has to move all of his or her belongings to a new location in Suffolk County. If they are in treatment, they then have to figure out how to get to a treatment provider, who could be up to 40 miles away. These individuals have no real chance to achieve any type of stability in their lives, including maintaining mental health stability and sobriety. The clinical literature clearly indicates that these types of stressors, involving lack of stable housing and treatment, can actually trigger additional offenses.

Registered sex offenders are required by law to register a new address with the local police station within 10 days of moving. Failure to do so could, and often does, result in them being arrested and incarcerated. The deck has been stacked against them. Who picks up the costs for all of this? Suffolk County taxpayers. Not only the cost of housing and moving them every week, but also the cost of incarcerating them in the county jail when they fail to comply with registration policies. The cost of keeping someone in our county jail for one month is approximately $6,000. The vast majority of sex offenders incarcerated in Suffolk at any given time are not there for new crimes associated with a sex offense, but rather for technical violations associated with failing to register a new address on a timely basis or not being at the address where they were last registered.

In my opinion, the county’s new monitoring program, which costs Suffolk taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in county contracts, exists to not prevent recidivism in terms of preventing offenders from committing new sexual-related crimes, but rather to keep them perpetually homeless and subject to revolving-door incarceration in the county jail at an enormous expense to Suffolk taxpayers. A much better and less costly approach to housing and monitoring sex offenders is to provide them with stable and ongoing supervised housing, with treatment support components. This approach has been successfully implemented in various states and jurisdictions across the country.

Providing supervised housing and treatment support programs to sex offenders has been documented in studies to reduce rates of recidivism for these offenders. I also think Suffolk County residents would feel much safer knowing that sex offenders were being housed in a specific location with staff supervision, which could include on-site assigned probation and parole officers, along with mental health and other treatment professionals. I know I would sleep better at night knowing that these offenders were in stable housing with available staffers who could intervene if the offender exhibited symptoms or behaviors that could lead to them reoffending.

R0815_JERRY-BILINKSKI_C1-150x150Jerry Bilinski is a Riverhead resident with experience in social work and advocating for incarcerated and mentally ill people.