By Elizabeth Thompson

Most of society shuns registered sex offenders, but Drew Doll has a different solution — befriending people convicted of high-risk sex crimes.

“By forming friendships … we get to know people really well,” said Doll, who is the reentry and reconciliation coordinator at the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham

“We hold them close.”

The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham is one of several groups in North Carolina exploring ways to reduce sex crimes independent of the sex offender registry, through methods ranging from restorative justice practices to cognitive behavioral therapy.

Doll’s approach stands in contrast to the way that society has responded to people who’ve committed sex crimes for the past three decades. The impulse has been to isolate and shun the people who convicted those crimes, pushing them to the edges of society.

They must register on the sex offender registry as part of an effort to prevent them from committing similar crimes again. However, multiple studies have deemed the registry has limited effectiveness, at best.

Accountability through friendship

Friends keep each other accountable, Doll said, and they aren’t afraid to ask hard questions, such as what they think about when they masturbate.

Doll’s model follows the restorative justice principles spearheaded by Canada’s Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), a program which has been found to remarkably reduce recidivism. COSA participants committed 70 to 83 percent fewer offenses than people who did not participate in the program, according to studies from 2007 and 2009.

In the COSA circles that Doll runs, members from the community keep people convicted of sex crimes accountable while also providing them support.

One time, a person convicted of a sex crime admitted in the circle that he has been having a new sexual partner every day, including sex workers.

“That kicked off this long discussion that we had over several meetings of what does healthy sexuality look like? What is it? What does it mean to be in a relationship?” Doll said.

Since starting the program in Durham in 2014, Doll said the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham’s COSA program has not seen a single person sexually reoffend.

“When you isolate people and when you take away their possibility to participate in community,” Doll said. This pushes people who are already used to operating in secrecy “back into secrecy to function in society at all.”

COSA invites people back into society, holding them accountable, not to a registry, but to their own friends.

Culture of stigma 

The sex offender registry was borne out of concerns in the 1990s around “child predators.” It was meant to be a prevention tool, so parents could be aware of potential predators in their neighborhoods.

However, most people committing sex crimes are not strangers hiding in bushes. As many as 86 percent of all sexual assault cases reported to law enforcement were committed by someone the victim knew, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, with more than a quarter of the offenders being family members and more than half being acquaintances.

Research has indicated that sex offender registries have little impact on recidivism rates — including studies in New Jersey, South Carolina and North Carolina. Only two studies, from Washington and Minnesota, found a correlation between a state having a registry and reduced recidivism rates.

Still, the registry impacts thousands of peoples’ lives, making it difficult for those convicted of sex crimes to reenter society and find jobs and homes. As of May 2021, there were close to 800,000 people on state sex offender registries, including about 25,000 in North Carolina, according to SafeHome.org.

In American society, there is a dangerous double standard, said Pat VanBuren, a psychologist who specializes in working with sex offenders. On one hand, sex is a taboo subject, but it is also everywhere — from TV shows to scantily clad women in car advertisements.

VanBuren is one of the founders of the Sex Offender Accountability and Responsibility program (SOAR), a cognitive behavioral treatment program housed in North Carolina’s prison system which helps people convicted of sex crimes understand why they sexually abused someone and prevent it from happening again.

Reworking sex crimes in therapy

SOAR program participants must confront their dark thoughts about themselves and others. Every day, participants have to face two chairs in the room, a smaller one symbolizing child victims and a larger one symbolizing adult victims. 

They have to role play their crime as their victim and face survivors of sexual assault. Multiple participants recall one occasion when the mother of a sexual assault survivor came in to speak to the men in the program. She looked them in the eyes and told them she would rather be the mother of a survivor than the mother of a rapist.

Coleman re-entered society two years ago and said not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about what he learned in the program.

“I didn’t care about myself. I didn’t love myself,” said Coleman, who asked to go by a different name due to the stigma surrounding sex offenders. “This whole program gave me my love of people back.” 

Zack, another man formerly incarcerated for sex crimes, said the program changed his life.

Participants are challenged to rethink the way they previously thought about sex and relationships and healthy masculinity. Instead of considering athleticism, money and having sex with as many women as possible the pinnacle of masculinity, the program inspired men with Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If—”, centering self-confidence, honesty and respect.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the SOAR program, like every program in the prison system, was impacted by staffing issues and outbreaks, said North Carolina Department of Public Safety spokesman John Bull.

VanBuren said she is hopeful the program will continue, but her contract was renewed only after she had to step away from the program at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham’s COSA program, one of the most important elements of the SOAR program is the bond participants forge with each other and the program’s counselors.

VanBuren said she regularly hears from people who participated in the program who are home now, even if they went through the program 20 years ago.

“It’s a lifelong thing,” Coleman said. “It’s a family. Guys don’t have family and that’s the only thing that they really have, the SOAR program. You don’t want to disappoint those people.”

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Elizabeth Thompson

Elizabeth Thompson is our Report for America corps member who covers gender health and prison health topics. Thompson is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate...