On May 7th, 2007 I stood before a judge (you can read more about how I got there HERE) and was sentenced to 10 years of sex offender probation for an illicit instant message conversation with a minor. The sentence was part of a plea "bargain" that would keep the judge from giving me time in prison. The 10 years probation was the maximum he could give. At the time I was pretty clueless as to what those years would be like. Now, as I look back on them, I see clearly what a mess that time turned out to be. For the next few days you can learn a little about what it was like for me and for my family. Hold on tight...
After confirming my sentence, Judge Jackson (Remember that bit in the movie Young Frankenstein where every time anyone said the name Frau Blucher a horse would winnie in the distance? Yeah...typing Judge Jackson does that to me!) then began to read to me the list of regulations I would be living under, some for the next 10 years and some for the rest of my life. This list is slightly longer that the U.S. Constitution. Because in the majority of states there is no difference made between the incredibly wide variety of things now lumped under the name "Sex Offense" every item applies to every offender- no matter what they did. Many Probation Officers, police officers, District Attorneys and Judges have been saying for years that this is a major flaw in the system, but the legislators who make the laws won't budge. They don't want to be seen as "soft" on sex offenders (henceforce referred to as SOs). Even the Minnesota couple who originally lobbied President Clinton for a national registry of SOs back in the 1993 have spoke out in opposition to what that registry has become. My offense- a sexual conversation with a minor (who turned out not be a minor) through instant messaging- is estimated to occur over 1 million times a day in some form (texting, social media, etc.) in this country. There are a few dozen crimes now labeled as "sex offenses." Yet catching violators seems to have taken a back seat to "watching" us after we get caught. For the most part, registered SOs are not the people the public needs to fear. It's the ones who haven't been caught yet. But more on that later. My restrictions were the same as someone who had kidnapped 10 kids and abused them for months. One even stated that I have no contact with the victim. It was the DA who pointed out to the Judge that I had no victim, so that didn't really apply. That would not be the last restriction that would make very little sense very quickly.
One of the basic restrictions stated that there should be no contact between the SO and anyone under the age of 18. The DA moved to amend that this not include my then 11 year old son, and after a brief debate the Judge agreed. I would be allowed to keep living with my family. At the time this felt like a great victory, but later on it gave me cause for pause. If I was such a monster, someone unfit for contact with children, then why would they put my son at such risk with almost no debate? It made little sense. And neither did any of these things as times passed:
- My crime was committed on and confined to a computer. Yet I was never actually banned from using the internet. We chose not to have it at home for the first 2 years, but we could have. The restrictions just warned that my PO could search my computer at any time. Those 7 years of probation would bring exactly one search, and even then it was mostly to check out this blog. The one restriction that would have actually been fitting for my offense was never really a restriction at all. I was (and still am) prohibited from having my own Facebook account, but that was a Facebook rule, not a probation restriction.
- There were a number of restrictions as to where my family could live. Although every state, county and city can add their own ordinances that determine how close SOs can live to schools, churches, daycares, playgrounds and various other places, the standard law states 1000 feet- roughly 3 football fields. That's not much when it comes to finding a home. We were able to find a nice house in a nice neighborhood that met the standards. We were warned by my PO (who had to approve the location) that the neighborhood was too nice and that the other residents would never accept us, but we have lived here nearly 8 years with only one incident. Everyone can find out online that you are a SO. But they seldom have any idea what you actually did, so the assumption is always that a child molester has moved into the neighborhood- even if the crime was indecent exposure by peeing in a public parking lot. With so many offenses under one label, the public has no idea who is dangerous and who made a terrible one-time decision. So they treat everyone as dangerous with no real idea who actually is. On Will's first day of school after moving in someone put a sign at the neighborhood bus stop with my picture on it, warning people of the presence of a SO on our circle. They had discovered me on The List, and I understood their concern. They knew what I was, not who I was or even what I had done. The sign was quickly removed by the two gay men (and Marilyn) living in the house by the stop. They understood people assuming things and were going to have none of it. Over the following years many of those neighbors became our friends, and several of them wrote letters for me in favor of my probation being terminated. Most SOs are not so fortunate. In some places the "buffer" is as much as 2500 feet. This creates a homeless ghetto of SOs living without hope and with no reason for rehabilitation. Once you are labeled a leper, you don't spend a whole lot of time worrying about what happens next. It can't get worse. SOs with no family support and few choices as to where to live (or work- that's coming soon) are often shunned or even abused by unhappy neighbors. And this is AFTER paying your debt to society for your crime. For SOs it never ends. The label constantly hangs over your head for the rest of your life, and except in rare instances there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Convicted murderers live under fewer post-sentence restrictions than SOs. The system is designed to kill hope, and it works well. I was just blessed to have family, friends and faith to pull me through. Many SOs have none of those things.
- Another guideline required me to stay away from "places where children might gather." Some were obvious. Most were randomly selected by your PO. For instance, I could take Will to school as long as I didn't go in, but going inside a McDonald's or Chick-fil-A with a playground was bad form. The local mall was fine, movies were ok and Walmart (home of children running around with no parents watching them at all) was never even discussed. But church they had to think about. It was all very odd. And it didn't matter if parents wanted me around their children; there was no process for getting that approved. At first I stayed completely clear of all children. But eventually if the parents knew and didn't mind, then I didn't either. When I first started probation I assumed everyone knew who I was, what I had done and were scared to death of me. I lived very afraid of someone accusing me of something I didn't do, and my PO encouraged that attitude. Eventually I discovered that since I was doing nothing wrong and 99% of the people had no idea I was a SO I had nothing to worry about. For the most part.
- The two restrictions listed directly above are perfect examples of how cosmetic the statutes for SOs have become. The laws are put in place to make people feel safe and to make legislators feel accomplished, when they really serve almost no purpose. Sexual predators- you know, the guys you see on the news who do horrific things with children- are a very small percentage of those on The List. And studies show that previously convicted SOs who commit new crimes seldom strike near where they live. Most true sex offenses (ones with flesh and blood victims who are abused) occur away from home at pre-arranged locations or IN the home with people the SO already knows and who would be there anyway. By the time you have been through the system once, you know where you are likely to get caught. The laws currently in place prohibit you from being in the very places where you already know you would have to behave. The system is a mess.
- My restrictions required me to have a job. My label practically prohibited me from getting one. Any job had to approved by my PO. I could have worked delivering phone books- but there might be kids at home. The same with a food delivery service. I could have worked for friends at a small shop in the local mall- but nope, malls were out. I could shop, just not work. Target actually offered me a job as part of an outreach program to give felons a second chance, an initiative which earns them money from the federal government. So they hired me- I even took the drug test. Then the home office in Minneapolis processed my application and discovered that the feds didn't reward them for hiring SOs. And poof- my job was gone. My PO had me applying for 5 jobs a day, 5 days a week for a month at one point. I didn't even get any calls from anyone but Target. So with his guidance, we found a way arround the job requirement. I invented a handyman company, CJ's Odd Jobs, and filed with the state and got a county license. So I had a job. But if you know me, aside from knowing 1001 uses for duct tape I have NO skills as a handyman. No matter- it kept me from a probation violation and a trip to jail, so we went with it! The company is now out of business. :)
- I had to see my PO at the office once a month, and they came to see me at home each month as well. They also would come do a search of the house once a year, which after the second year became a joke as they no longer were worried about me doing anything wrong. Despite the fact that I had no history of drug use, I was subject to random drug tests that required me to pee while an officer watched. I often had trouble doing this. They almost sent me to JAIL a couple of times because I couldn't urinate and they assumed I was hiding something. You can't make this stuff up...
- I had to keep a driving log each month, writing down times and places I drove. For 7 years I did this. And not ONCE did a PO even give it a serious look. Which was understandable, because no one in their right mind would write down times or places they weren't supposed to be. My PO (all 4 of them; they kept changing) understood this was a useless exercise. Like with so many things, the law makers do not. More cosmetics.
- I also had a curfew and couldn't leave the county I live in without written permission from my PO- which wasn't always easy to get. For the first year I had to deal with a Georgia imposed 7 PM curfew until I completed 98 hours of community service. After that it was from 10 PM- 6 AM. This meant that I had to be home every night by 10, which meant I could not spend the night anywhere else. My hospital stay in November 2012 marked the first nights I had spent away from home in over 5 years. I couldn't travel with my family or go spend the night with my mom. One of the SO friends I made while in the program was dying with cancer and he still could not get permission to go see his homebound parents in NY. He died never seeing them again. These travel rules were just more cosmetic restrictions. No one was safer because Jose didn't get to see his parents. One of my neighbors and I were talking the week after Christmas one year while Marilyn and Will were in NC, and she was flabbergasted at the regulations. "If you are are really a danger to us- which I know you are not" she began, "then wouldn't everyone be safer if you were with your family rather than home alone with your computer?" I laughed so hard. It was just another example of how a law that looked good on paper, and is probably needed for sexual predator cases, makes no sense in many others. And everyone on The List is treated the exact same way...
"Enjoy every sandwich."