Restrictions on sex offenders, regardless of the details of their cases, have created a huge population of people whose potential contributions to society have been foreclosed. It’s time to give them the same chance as other returning citizens for full reintegration when they pose no further threat, says a former sentencing mitigation researcher.
Before soliciting a teenage girl who turned out to be an undercover cop on the internet, Joshua Hoe was director of the University of Michigan’s debate team.
Although he now runs a podcast that features staffers from prestigious criminal justice reform organizations like the Brennan Center for Justice, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and #Cut50, he still cannot get a salaried day job in the field because of his conviction for a sex crime.
Nick Dubin, who has a doctorate in psychology, was a nationally renowned speaker on the autism rights circuit. That changed forever in 2010, when he was prosecuted for viewing inappropriate images of young adolescents on the internet. He did not deliver a keynote speech to an audience again until 2018, and he only did so to use his story as a cautionary tale for the parents of autistic kids.
There are almost one million Americans on sex offender registries. These include individuals who committed grave offenses, but also people like Hoe and Durbin who were convicted for comparatively minor sex crimes.
A number of those on the registry were in fact convicted for offenses committed when they were children themselves.
But the stigma applied to the sex offender, which treats him or her the same as the worst rapist and child abuser imaginable, regardless of the details of the case, has created a huge population of people with skills whose potential contributions to society have been foreclosed.
Civil liberties advocates have begun to acknowledge the need for a more humane approach to individuals who have been involved with the justice system and have paid the price with time served.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), for example, has pushed to end employment discrimination against those with criminal records. But only recently has the organization started to hire people who had previously committed serious violent acts.
Bill Cobb, the deputy director of ACLU National’s Smart Justice Initiative has a record that includes kidnapping and robbery. Esmie Tseng stabbed her own mother to death at 16 years old and recently started working at ACLU of Kansas. And Bruce Reilly, who went to law school with a second-degree murder conviction, was able to get internships and fellowships at the Brennan Center and the Vera Institute of Justice, though he ended up at a less high-profile organization for full-time work.
There is no sex offender equivalent of these redemption stories.
The closest example is Guy Hamilton-Smith, who is on the sex-offender registry for looking at pictures of naked underage teens on the internet. Hamilton-Smith graduated toward the top of his law school class at University of Kentucky, and was categorically rejected by the Kentucky Bar due to his registry status.
Nevertheless, it appears that to this day, there is not one ACLU branch that employs a sex offender registrant as a staff member.
This disparity underlines a serious gap in the American victims’ rights movement.
This has been translated too often into a perspective that allowing someone who sexually wronged someone else move on and contribute to society in a meaningful fashion is equivalent to “tell[ing] all survivors that they don’t matter.”
Such black-and-white thinking, which is frequently encouraged by law enforcement officials, leaves out a multitude of victim experiences, offenses, and cultural attitudes.
After David Bowie’s death, the internet went into a frenzy over a statutory rape he had committed in his early-to-mid 20s against a 15-year-old girl who many decades later still considers the encounter consensual.
To legitimize the controversy for purposes of debate, a writer at Mic noted that “[t]he age of consent in California was (and still is) 18 years of age.” But that also puts California at odds with the vast majority of the nation, which sets the age at 16 or 17, as well as the world, where the age averages between 15 and 16.
Some developed nations go even lower: Germany and Italy set the age at 14, and until 2013, Spain set it at 13. The trend in recent years is to increase the age, but Malta just decreased the age from 18 to 16.
The imbalance produces Kafka-esque cases like Edward Marrero, who admitted in court, while testifying in defense of a friend, that he took sexual photos of his 17-year-old girlfriend when he was only 20.
As a result of that admission, Marrero now faces 15-to-30 years in federal prison for photos of a relationship that would be legal nearly everywhere.
Is a close-in-age relationship between a young adult and a teenager morally worse than murder, kidnapping, or robbery? The dearth of otherwise-qualified sex offenders in criminal justice reform careers shows how far we have tilted the scales from reality.
Criminal justice reform organizations should be able to ask these questions and answer them realistically, without putting too much credence in the byzantine and cruel state of American sex laws.
After all, we know better than anyone that the law is not always what is right. Let’s hire sex offenders when we believe in them.
Rory Fleming, founder of Foglight Strategies, worked as a sentencing mitigation researcher on felony sex offense cases, where he employed a sex registrant. He is also a friend of Guy Hamilton-Smith, mentioned above, and facilitated Smith’s writing for the Appeal, a publication of the Fair Punishment Project, at Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute. Fleming blogs at The Digest and tweets from @RoryFleming8A.