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Sex Offender Registry Insanity

SexOffender

Writing at Reason’s Hit & Run blog, Lenore Skenazy passes along the story of a man caught up in a particular bizarre application of the laws requiring people register as sex offenders:

Josh became a sex offender at age 12. That’s when he touched his sister’s vagina, twice. His sister told their mom, Josh said it was true (he was too embarrassed at the time to mention that he himself had been raped as a young boy by three local high school kids), and their mom called a counseling service for advice. The counsellor said Josh’s mother was required to report his crime to the authorities and the next day, he was arrested.

He spent the next four years in juvenile prison: the Texas Youth Commission, as it is officially called.

The charge was “aggravated sexual assault,” because any sex offense against a person under age 14 is automatically “aggravated.” He got out at age 16 and was put on the sex offender registry, which, in Dallas, requires him to report in person to the authorities once a year, as well as anytime anything in his life changes.

Today he is 27, married with children, and smiley. We met up, had a jolly breakfast (except for the fact he said he felt too pudgy to start a speaking tour), and then we went off to the registry, because his family had just moved to a new house and he had to let the state know no more than seven days after the move.

Just as the detective in the nondescript office finished typing this information into the system and Josh and I were about to go to lunch, a man with a beard and a badge strode up and said, “Joshua Gravens?”

“Yes.”

“You are under arrest for not alerting the authorities to your new address.” He whipped out handcuffs. “Put your hands behind your back.”

As the man tightened the cuffs, Josh calmly explained he was registering his new address that very minute.

“The law says you you have to register the fact you are going to move seven days before the move, too.”

“I think you’re mistaken,” said Josh, as pleasantly as if discussing the weather.

“I was told to arrest you,” was the reply, and that was that. Josh handed me his car keys and followed the man out to his van along with a handcuffed woman who was crying. She was going to jail for having listed her address as a hotel when she actually lives in her car in front of the hotel.

(This statute suggests that the officer was correct: Registrants must report their intention to change addresses seven days before actually moving, according to the statute.)

As it turns out, failure to properly register is itself considered a sex crime under the applicable law, so this guy is now in danger of having the time he must be on the sex offender registry lengthened not because he committed a sexual assault but because he failed to comply with an essentially bureaucratic requirement. Leaving aside the others issues that this case raises, that fact alone is a fairly concise demonstration of how sex offender registry laws, which were originally passed with the salutory intention of warning law enforcement and the general public of people with dangerous sex-related offenses, especially those related to children, in their backgrounds have become, for lack of a better word, perverted. As time has gone on, the laws themselves have been amended to expand the offenses that cause someone to be required to register. Additionally, the fact that the lists are public has led to a whole host of negative consequences for people who have been convicted of a crime and served their time, including cases where offenders have found it impossible to even find someplace to live. In this case, that portion of the law designed to ensure that someone keeps their address up to date seems to be being enforced in a way that is both overly bureaucratic and, in the end, designed to create the kind of incentives that would lead someone to fail to comply with the law to begin with.

Beyond those issues, though, there’s the entire question of why Gravens is on the sex offender registry to begin with. Assuming for the sake of argument that the circumstances of the act that led to his conviction and registration requirements are accurate, it strikes me that there was an obvious overreaction here. For one thing, the fact that he was only 12 years old at the time that this happened, and had a history of sexual abuse in his own past, argues strongly that there ought to have been some kind of mitigation in his favor that would have either reduced the charges against him or eliminated them altogether. Indeed, given the well-documented connection between children who have already been abused themselves who then turn around and engage in behavior with other children that may be considered abusive would seem to be enough in and of itself to argue that his case should have been treated differently than it apparently was. None of this is to downplay the seriousness of sexual abuse, of course, and there may be facts about his case that we don’t know, but based on the description provided in the linked article it seems inconceivable to me that he would end up covered by a law originally intended to alert the authorities and parents to the presence of an adult sexual offender in their communities.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Jim R says:

    Is this the part where we wring our hands about how people don’t trust government enough these days? Or am I in the wrong thread?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3

  2. JohnMcC says:

    I have assumed that the American way of determining who is a ‘sex offender’ and how to treat them is a peculiarity of our convoluted ideas about sex. Poking about in the google, it seems that the British have a similar registry but that the continental nations do not because the general conviction is that the treatment of people on such a registry violates the European Convention on Human Rights.

    I didn’t check on numbers of sex crimes in Europe compared to the US & Britain because the reporting of such offenses is so uncertain. But it seems hardly likely that the lack of a registry has led to an epidemic of pederasty.

    What we see in stories like Mr Gravens is how extensively the American public character is just incredibly screwed up on the subject of sex.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 0

  3. KM says:

    Indeed, given the well-documented connection between children who have already been abused themselves who then turn around and engage in behavior with other children that may be considered abusive would seem to be enough in and of itself to argue that his case should have been treated differently than it apparently was.

    Bull. Shit.

    Being a victim doesn’t give you leeway to make victims of others, nor does it grant mitigation. If anything, since they have first hand experience with the matter, that make it even worse since they are deliberately continuing the cycle. So if Grandpa sexual assaulted Teen,Teen can have his case “handled differently” when he does the same to Sister? What happens to Teen is horrible so we can’t drop the full weight of the law on him for his later actions? Because he didn’t get justice, Sister shouldn’t?

    Maybe that’s not what you meant, but Doug WTF? That’s not kindness nor respect for the victims (either of them). You denying their agency by implying they’re too damaged to act right and pretty much saying the first victim has priority to concern by not giving victim #2 the same consideration. Victim #2 has the right to you not dissing what happened to them as an unfortunate consequence of Victim 1’s tragic past.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 31

  4. ptfe says:

    @KM: At risk of putting words in Doug’s mouth here, I think he’s saying that a 12-year old — who, legally speaking, is considered incapable of understanding “right” and “wrong” — very well might not have a very useful notion of what’s “wrong” if he or she is currently or has previously been in an environment where “wrong” was given approval.

    Note that this is a kid. This isn’t a 17-year old acting inappropriately, it’s a 12-year old (note: not even a teen!) whose sexual education seems to have been “what gramps did to me.” And given the authoritative weight of grandpa, he probably didn’t figure out that “what gramps did to me” isn’t the same as “what’s appropriate.” It takes a lot of socialization to sort out bodily autonomy. It likely takes more when your bodily autonomy has been previously violated.

    At a certain point, the child perpetrator becomes culpable for actions regardless of their past. The age of 12 really isn’t that point. Acknowledging that fact doesn’t make you a moral monster or anti-victim. You can simultaneously feel that a crime is horrible and recognize that the perpetrator is not within his or her full faculties. We give special dispensation for this within our court system specifically for that reason.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 30 Thumb down 2

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @KM: As one who has dealt with the lifelong repercussions of regular physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a nun when I was 10 and 11, I can say unequivocally that you don’t have a clue of what you are talking about.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 16 Thumb down 5

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Related: A few weeks back I was driving down I-44 in STL when I saw a billboard. It said,

    WANTED
    For Sexual Abuse of Children
    Bill W*********
    Age 4* Ht %* Wt 1**

    With his picture along side of it.

    It made me very uncomfortable. Was he convicted? Just accused? Released from prison and now not where he was “supposed” to be?

    a law originally intended to alert the authorities and parents to the presence of an adult sexual offender in their communities.

    I have come to the inescapable conclusion that this is not now, nor was it ever the true purpose of such laws. It is the new “Scarlet Letter”. It is about shaming the “perverts” in our society, and never letting them know any kind of peace again. Here in MO we have convicted rapists being civilly committed indefinitely to mental institutions based on the fear that they might offend again.

    All of this makes me very uncomfortable as the law says the sentence for rape is a specific period of time. Or not. Maybe. Depends on how we feel this week.

    And yes, rape is a very serious crime. Especially so in the case of children. But aren’t we as a country supposed to be restrained by laws and a constitution? Whatever happened to “paying one’s debt to society”?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 0

  7. KM says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I can say unequivocally that you don’t have a clue of what you are talking about.

    Kind of presumptuous to assume you are the only abuse survivor, sir. You are not the only one of this thread who went through that hell.

    I speak from experience. People telling me my whole life that I’m a part of a cycle and it was because my mother and her mother was raised that way, that’s why it happened to me. I found it incredibly degrading to be told I should give my abuser some level of forgiveness because they were abused too. To this day, it makes me feel dirty when I get angry about it since I’ve been conditioned to feel sorry for them. They chose to abuse me, plain and simple.

    I’m a victim of abuse, having been raised in it. I made a choice to not be like them and I’m guessing you did too Ozark. I was raised in the same environment where “wrong” was normal but learned differently. It’s offensive as hell to be told my pain is lessened because my abuser was in pain too, that what happened to me was inevitable like we’re nothing but broken dolls who can’t escape. The cycle ends with me when it should have ended with my mother – my choice, just like it was hers. Don’t take that from me, sir.

    Congratulations on surviving and staying strong.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 9

  8. KM says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Related: A few weeks back I was driving down I-44 in STL when I saw a billboard. It said,

    WANTED
    For Sexual Abuse of Children
    Bill W*********
    Age 4* Ht %* Wt 1**

    With his picture along side of it.

    If the police put it up, my guess is he’s actually “wanted” – missed a court date, perhaps? Did it look like a legit wanted poster?

    If a private citizen put it up, then that’s really uncalled for. Were there any news stories in the area regarding it? Aren’t there rules about what you can post on a billboard like that – something about personal images, releases and consent?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  9. Ben says:

    @KM:

    For an adult, what you are saying is absolutely true. Having been the victim of abuse doesn’t excuse or mitigate any criminal culpability. But this case is about a freaking 12-year-old for christ’s sake. I remember a lot about being 12. Acceptable sexual mores was not something I knew anything about at that age.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 0

  10. stonetools says:

    The whole sex offender registry thing is simply a way of punishing a supposed offender indefinitely, and is thus a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It’s a powerful example of how hysteria, whipped up in part by the media, can lead to the wrong result.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  11. Grewgills says:

    @KM:
    The boy was 12 and confused. It seems clear that the best solution is first making sure both victims are ok, that the girl knows she did nothing wrong and did right by telling her mother, that both victims are given counseling to help break the cycle, and that the grandfather is dealt with legally. What is the benefit of punishing the boy for the rest of his life?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  12. Matt says:

    This list was a bad idea from the start. Seems anytime a list is made it gets abused. See no flight list and such for more examples..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  13. bill says:

    that does suck, i wonder if you get caught peeing in an ally has the same effect?!
    of course you have to ask why his mom thought he needed the school to get involved- wasn’t a smack in the head enough?!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  14. Kelly S. says:

    @bill:

    Peeing in a corner does have the same effect! My friend is serving 18yrs right now because his ex girlfriend filed false child molestation charges against him. He told me he was in jail with a guy that pissed in a corner at a park. Because children were so many feet off in the distance, now has to register! The laws are way too excessive!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  15. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    Why is it that when I read things like this, I feel as though I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and landed in a short story by Kafka or Dostoyevski?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  16. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    On another line of thought (apologies to Doug):

    argues strongly that there ought to have been some kind of mitigation in his favor

    Mitigation? Ought to have been some kind of mitigation? Dude, this is TEJAS! We don’t need no steenking mitigation.

    (Apologies to John Huston [IIRC], too.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  17. Ron Beasley says:

    I can’t think of a single young boy I grew up with would not be considered a sex offender today. At 10 or 12 the pretty young girl next door would drop her her pants and let us check her out – a natural part of growing up.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  18. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Let’s not forget that it doesn’t exactly take the greatest effort to get convicted of a sex crime. I have a longtime friend who recently died in prison in a state out west (I won’t name it, but you can see the Rockies from your front porch) while serving three consecutive life sentences for sexually molesting a minor girl. The first problem was, there was NO forensic evidence produced by the prosecution. The child’s testimony was graphic, but displayed a basic ignorance of male sexual anatomy. While said molestation was going on, the man’s wife was baking cookies in the kitchen (less than 30 feet away). Finally, the child’s testimony was corroborated by testimony from one of her parents. Said parent was involved in a bitter divorce action against child’s mother and was using the allegations to lash out against my friends, who had taken the child in as foster parents.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  19. Lance Mitaro says:

    @KM: Oh, look! Another self-appointed “expert” who thinks they’re making a difference in the world.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  20. Barry says:

    @KM: “If the police put it up, my guess is he’s actually “wanted” – missed a court date, perhaps? Did it look like a legit wanted poster?”

    Bull. Has anybody here seen a billboard wanted poster?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  21. grumpy realist says:

    Considering the hysteria we now manifest surrounding people accused of sexual abuse of children, it might be more compassionate to buy an island somewhere and just put them on it.

    We’ve made it absolutely impossible for them to be reintegrated back into society. What this reminds me of is all the old laws concerning lepers and how they had to carry a warning bell with them as they made their way through the world.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  22. Nick says:

    @Barry:
    http://www.bizjournals.com/buffalo/news/2014/03/31/billboard-becomes-fbis-wanted-poster.html

    “We have a partnership with billboard advertisers, especially with electronic and digital billboards,” Boetig said. “We’ve run some others locally, but this is the first we’ve done with an active fugitive. It’s a good way to get people who are riding up and down the road.”

    Just because you’ve never seen one doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The FBI uses them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  23. bill says:

    @Kelly S.: the thing i don’t like about this is that you can’t tell who the real pervs are- i had a friend get fined for peeing in an alley, that was before it became a “sex offense”. like our jails have all sorts of space or something!?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. Tyrell says:

    As far as adjusting and having clearer, more sensible guidelines and rubrics in these kind of laws, that’s fine and needed. But child abusers and predators should not be released just anywhere. Society has demanded these kind of laws. Let’s show some concern for the victims here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  25. 7heRedBaron says:

    @Ron Beasley: And here you see the true purpose of the registry and it’s original design; to sweep up as many as possible as children for conduct that everyone knows is tragically common, assign an everlasting stigma and grow the registry exponentially and inflict a lifetime of hardship on them and anyone related or involved with them. It has absolutely nothing to do with protecting children but EVERYTHING about protecting the careers of bureaucrats.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0