July 10, 2016; TakePart

Former prison inmates often find reentry into the community difficult enough, but for registered sex offenders, release from prison carries the social stigma of deviance as a figurative scarlet letter. Nobody wants a sex offender as a neighbor or as a coworker. Restrictions on where they can live, including distances they must remain from schools and playgrounds, significantly affect the quality of their lives and those of their families once they leave incarceration. As NPQ reported only recently, International Megan’s Law now requires sex offenders to have a special symbol on their passports when they travel abroad. International governments will also be notified when a sex offender is traveling, a law that advocacy groups have called unconstitutional and unjust.

One consequence of these externalities is that communities have been established solely to accommodate sex offenders and their unique challenges. Miracle Village, situated in a secluded Florida town, has hosted a community of sex offenders for several years. The documentary that aired yesterday on PBS profiled a different sex offender community in Florida, exploring what life is like for its residents and whether we as a society are taking the right steps to rehabilitate them.

Pervert Park follows 120 residents in Palace Mobile Park in St. Petersburg, Florida, where every member of the community has stood convicted of a sex crime. Through one-on-one interviews, the documentary records the daily lives of those in the community. The trailer park is run through Florida Justice Transitions, a nonprofit that was established in 1990 to help find housing and resources for sex offenders, who are often ostracized by society. While the documentary was first released at the Sundance Film Festival last year, PBS’s airing of the film will be the first wide release of the movie to the public.

“Before we went there, we hadn’t really questioned what a sex offender was,” said Scandinavian filmmaker Frida Barkfors, who co-directed the documentary with her husband, Lasse Barkfors. “We had completely bought into what the mainstream media portrayed.”

According to the description of the movie, “Pervert Park raises significant questions. Should America give these criminals a second chance? And can their experiences help in devising a successful strategy for reducing the growing number of sex crimes?”

Many have discussed whether the sex offender registry, and the myriad crimes one can be convicted of and end up labeled a sex offender, are part of that successful strategy. As NPQ has discussed before, individuals designated as sex offenders and placed on the national registry have committed crimes as heinous and repulsive as rape or the possession and distribution of child pornography, and as banal as public urination. A 17-year-old might be convicted as a sex offender if he or she receives explicit photos from a 16-year-old girlfriend, an offense many would agree does not merit a place on the sex offender registry next to a violent child molester.

These disparities are reflected in the demographics of the community. Florida Justice Transitions was established by Nancy Morais when her son, a sex offender, had a difficult time finding a place to live that abided by the restrictions given to those on the registry.

“If they could choose, they would not be there. They want to live with their families. They want to heal. They want to reintegrate into society,” said Frida Barkfors. “They’re not able to do that because of the registry and because of all the restrictions that you have to live with as a sex offender.”

While such laws and the registry have not been recognized as the best solutions for rehabilitating sex offenders, the documentary does focus on what may be working: group therapy. According to the documentary, several residents endured abuse as children, including Tracy Hutchinson, who was repeatedly raped by her father. Hutchinson then proceeded to abuse her own son.

According to Don Sweeney, a counselor at the community, group therapy may have broken the cycle for Hutchinson. In the film, Sweeney says, “Offenders will continue to act out until they’re stopped and they understand their behavior.  Treating one offender might prevent 10 more victims from being created.”

The community’s support for one another may have a greater chance of reducing recidivism than other methods of tackling sexual misconduct and assault.—Shafaq Hasan