When Systems Offend: Exploring the Limits of the Sex Offender System

By Lindsey Krinks


This story concerns a group of people more loathed and feared than just about any other segment of the population: sex offenders. But rather than join the usual chorus that alienates and ostracizes sex offenders, this story takes a different approach, posing critical questions about the limits of the system that manages them. An undeniably complex issue, this story pushes through the usual hysteria that surrounds it, opting for a closer, more humanizing look at what it means to spend a lifetime on the sex offender registry.

When I first met Charles in April 2009, he told me that he had been off his psych meds and was feeling suicidal. Charles had moved to Nashville the previous September to escape the discrimination and harassment he experienced in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa. As if he did not face alienation enough for being poor, black, psychiatrically disabled and in recovery from alcohol and drug addictions, Charles was also a registered sex offender. With the cards stacked against him, Charles fled to Nashville in search of a new life, but everywhere he turned for help, he found only closed doors. Living day to day on the streets and being exposed to the elements in his campsite had taken its toll. The house of cards was falling in around him.

More than two years later, Charles, 54 years old, is still living at a campsite in the woods. Despite the havoc that “living rough” has wreaked on his body and spirit-and despite a persistent limp from an ankle injury that he nurses from the outdoors-he remains vibrant and looks much younger than his years and experiences ought to show for. His laugh and smile are contagious, and his brown eyes light up when he talks. A gentle man with a gentle spirit, Charles longs to give back to his community. But giving back is hard for someone like Charles: as a registered sex offender in a system that punishes offenders by way of isolation, his desire to contribute to a community is a desire that will most likely go unrealized. Because of his lifetime sentence on the sex offender registry, the Charles that I know and love, the Charles that I have journeyed with for over two years, will, most often, be viewed as no more than a callous criminal to be feared and avoided.

Charles’ story as a sex offender starts in Des Moines, where, in 2002, he was accused and convicted of sexual abuse against a minor. “That’s when my whole life fell apart,” Charles says. “I had to prove my innocence and I was ignorant of the law. I fought my case as best I could, but I didn’t know my rights-I didn’t know that I had the right to DNA evidence. But I made a plea and I did the time.”

Various public defenders represented Charles throughout his case-public defenders who, because of their heavy caseloads, spent very little time educating or helping Charles fight the accusations against him. During his five years in prison, Charles eventually began to fight his case and work to prove that the DNA evidence presented in court didn’t match his. But before he could take his argument any further, he ran out of the money required to pay his lawyer.

When Charles was released from prison in 2007, he moved in as a caretaker with his mother, who was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia. After he moved in, however, he was forced to move out because of residential restrictions for sex offenders. Since he was accused of an offense against a minor, Charles had to find housing that was at least 1,000 feet away from any school, day care facility, playground or recreation center.Without any other housing options, Charles decided that being homeless in another city was better than being ostracized in his hometown, so he boarded a Greyhound bus and headed for Nashville.

Even though he receives a monthly disability check, there are few affordable and low-income housing facilities in Nashville that will accept Charles. Since I’ve known him, Charles has received help from the VA (Veterans Affairs) as an honorably discharged veteran and has become a member of Park Center, a mental health agency in Nashville. But he has also cycled in and out of jail, cheap hotels, rehabs, campsites and psych facilities. Without stable and supportive housing, Charles continues in this cycle, despite his best efforts to stay clean and stable. “I believe I have a right to adequate housing,” says Charles, “but I just don’t know where to turn for help.”

Sex Offender Legislation in Tennessee

Certainly, sex offender laws exist to protect victims from further abuse and to protect the public from sexual predators. Without such laws, more innocent people would undoubtedly suffer. But the underside of some of these laws is that rather than contribute to the rehabilitation of the offender, they often impede the progress of those who are sincerely trying to rebuild their lives. For those, like Charles, who are homeless, simply finding transitional and permanent housing is all but impossible. Recent legislation in Tennessee only adds to that difficulty.

In July of last year, Rep. Mike Turner (D-Old Hickory) sponsored a bill that would limit the number of sex offenders in Tennessee halfway houses to two per house. The bill was signed and approved by Governor Phil Bredesen. As The Tennessean reports, when asked where, if not in halfway houses, multiple sex offenders should live, Turner responded: “I know sex offenders have to be housed somewhere. It should be away from neighborhoods, maybe in industrialized zones.”

On September 9, 2010, when Governor Bredesen visited the newly renovated Room In The Inn facility in Nashville, complete with 38 housing units for homeless men (two of which Bredesen and his wife personally funded), he was informed by Room In The Inn’s director that the bill would have a major affect on their homeless members seeking to rebuild their lives. Bredesen responded: “Did I sign that?”

This year, Turner sponsored another bill specifying that no more than three sex offenders are allowed to “establish a primary or secondary residence in any house, apartment, or other habitation” unless it is a “residential treatment facility” that “complies with the guidelines and standards for the treatment of sexual offenders.”

The only problem is that so few halfway houses, apartment complexes and other such “habitations” exist in Nashville. Rather than determining places those on the registry can live, the code simply determines where sex offenders can’t live. Once again, while these bills are aimed at protecting the public, they do little to aid the offender in creating a healthier, more stable life wherein the potential for recidivism is diminished.

“The system is not perfect”

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are 739,853 sex offenders in the United States and 14,940 in Tennessee. On any given day, there are between 1,200 and 1,700 registered sex offenders in Davidson County. As of August 5th, a day when there were approximately 1,400 offenders on the registry, approximately 140 of Davidson County offenders were homeless and 600 were incarcerated. These numbers remain in constant flux because offenders must notify the registry within 48 hours of a change of address. For homeless offenders who are already required to register monthly, yet continue to cycle in and out of jail, shelters and hotels, this may mean notifying the registry multiple times a week. If an offender fails or is unable to do so, he or she faces fines and jail time-a cycle that can be crippling for people living below the poverty line.

Much of the policy that shaped today’s sex offender laws was first put in place in the wake of extreme and horrific cases. Megan’s Law, the Adam Walsh Act and numerous other pieces of legislation were named after children who were tragically abused and murdered-in Megan’s case by a registered sex offender. Most people are familiar with the tragic, the violent and the haunting when it comes to crimes committed by sex offenders. Indeed, such crimes should not be taken lightly, for they have devastated the lives of countless victims and their families.

But there is another side to the criminal category of the “sex offender” seldom considered in public discourse about the system that manages their punishment.

Consider, for instance, the 28-year-old prostitute in Nashville who was caught sleeping with the 17-year-old boy who hired her. She is now on the registry for the rest of her life. Or there’s the 19-year-old high school graduate in Caldwell, Texas who had sex with his girlfriend, who was a sophomore in high school at the time. When her mother found out, she got mad and turned her daughter’s boyfriend in, expecting he’d get off with a warning. But now he’s on the sex offender registry, and will be until the day he dies. The pair eventually married, and 15 years later, the man can’t coach his children’s soccer team because he cannot legally be in a place where children gather. And then there’s the young man who, in 2004, streaked through a public market, was charged with indecent exposure and is now on the sex offender registry for life.

Or consider my friend “Dennis”. Dennis was a regular at our homeless outreach office for months during 2010. At the time, we were in the process of ordering his birth certificate from Germany and helping him obtain his disability benefits. One scorching summer day in 2010, I saw a police officer placing handcuffs on Dennis outside a gas station in East Nashville. After I pulled over and got out of my car, I walked up to the officer, introduced myself, and asked what was going on. Apparently, someone had called the police because they saw a homeless man peeing on the side of the building. I explained to the officer that I knew Dennis and that he was working to pull his life back together-that there weren’t any public restrooms nearby and that none of the businesses around would let him in because of his appearance.

I asked if he would allow me take Dennis back to our office and let him off with a warning. “Nope, can’t do that,” the officer responded. “We have to take these calls seriously so the public knows we’re doing our job. You know I could make him a sex offender for this-you should be glad I’m just charging him with public urination.” I could only stare at the officer. Dennis didn’t say a word. I was speechless. While this police officer’s response is certainly not representative of how all (or even most) officers would respond to such a situation, that it happened at all is enough to give us pause when we consider the binding power of sex offense laws.

According to Don Aaron, Public Affairs Manager for the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD), and Lt. Preston Brandimore, head of Metro’s Sex Crimes Unit, MNPD is doing the best it can to bring about justice in what they admit are often complicated scenarios. “It is this department’s position that sex crimes can impact victims (and those who may be falsely accused) for the rest of their lives,” they say. “It is the MNPD’s mission to investigate such crimes and bring the results of such investigations before prosecutors and the courts for potential advancement in the justice system. The system is not perfect, nor was it when our nation and state were founded hundreds of years ago.”

While Lt. Brandimore and others work diligently to see that everyone is treated fairly, both Brandimore and Aaron admit that MNPD is limited in what it can do. “The MNPD is responsible for registering most sex offenders in Davidson County,” they say. “Two detectives are assigned this task. It can be daunting at times as they work to update the TBI [Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s registry] with accurate information as well as identify those who fail to register and investigate the reason(s) why.”

Not only is a small staff a burden for the Sex Crimes Unit, it’s also a burden for the Board of Probation and Parole who keep up with all offenders after their release. In her column in The Tennessean on June 29, 2011, Gail Kerr spells out the problem. “To save money, the legislature approved a plan to release 2,000 prison inmates early,” she writes. “That will send the caseloads for parole officers to 115. They are supposed to make monthly visits to the parolee’s home, check employment, find out if the parolee is staying out of trouble and a list of other tasks. It’s impossible.”

In the end, while legislation like Megan’s Law and others like it work to prevent such tragedies from happening again, they also have the adverse effect of unintentionally penalizing individuals for whom a lifetime of punishment simply does not fit the crime. Because there is so little distinction on the registry between the person charged with indecent exposure and the person who is a predator and violently assaults a minor, individuals who have already served their sentence for more minor crimes and are working toward rehabilitation are left to fall through the cracks of our justice system with a lifetime of limited housing, employment and recreation opportunities.

Conceiving Punishment Alternatively

Across town from Charles’ campsite, my friend “Walter” is serving time at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution for a sex charge. With a release date in March of 2013, Walter, unlike many other sex offenders, has a wife, a family and neighbors who will welcome him back home upon his release. Walter will avoid homelessness, but his life on the “outside” will be far from normal.

“When I leave here, I will have served my sentence,” says Walter. “But a new punishment will just be starting-one that will be there for a lifetime. My wife and I can’t participate in Halloween; we can’t decorate or give out candy. We also can’t decorate for Christmas because we can’t do anything to attract children. We can’t go to the park or the lake if it’s a holiday because there will be more children there.”

According to Walter, what the sex offender system is missing is a sense of distinction. “In America, people are sentenced to jail and prison as punishment-then they are released,” he says. “For those of us with sex charges, though, the punishment continues. We’re all thrown into the bucket and mixed up. There’s no distinction. No one is taken on a case-by-case basis.”

While Walter will be reconciled to the closest members of his community on the other side of the prison walls, because of the nature of the system to which he is bound until he dies, he faces a lifetime of hostility and discrimination.

In recent years, a number of different groups have called on legislative bodies to change the way they punish sex offenders. “Demonization is destructive even when applied to truly violent offenders,” write the authors and signatories of one group in their official statement Reform Sex Offender Laws Now! “Those who commit sexually violent crimes do not come out of a vacuum. They come out of our communities and families. To view dangerous offenders as totally ‘other’ than us prevents us from getting at the roots of such crimes. Permanent stigmatization not only makes impossible re-integration into society of those who are rehabilitated, it signals a breakdown in civil society.”

Deborah Ingram, a victim of sexual abuse and an activist for restorative justice for sex offenders in Massachusetts, believes that current policy on the issue is misguided. “Punishment that includes public shaming and demonizing may feel good today, but it is short-sighted, and too simplistic for a very complex problem,” she says. “I learned that it is treatment of sex offenders, not punishment, that will bring validation, victim empathy, apology and restitution to victims.”

In the meantime, sex offenders who are eager and ready to integrate back into communities face an uphill battle against a system that serves its justice, not by way of rehabilitative treatment, but by a lifetime of exclusion.

“To live like everyone else lives”

Back at his campsite, Charles sits on a crate outside his tent, swatting away mosquitoes with an arm bandaged from a recent bike accident. When I ask him what he envisions for his life, he struggles to articulate a response. “It’s just like, well, what do I do?” he says. “What do I do?” But Charles does not resign himself to despair. “Do I jump off a bridge?” he says. “No. Turn to crime? No. I keep on living. I’m human and I have feelings just like the next person.”

When I get around to asking him what justice might look like for someone like him, he cannot help but imagine, once again, some place other than the place he currently calls home. “I have a right to adequate housing,” he says. “I want to live in peace, enjoy the parks with my family, enjoy my days of living, be treated fairly and just to live like everyone else lives. Give me a chance to live, you know? You never know what a person has been through.”

But despite his situation, Charles seems strangely unable to give up hope. “The world is a beautiful place,” he says, his eyes beaming. “We’re all the same-we live and breathe the same air. I’m not a bad person-I’m just hurting in a lot of ways. I just want to be happy again and not be broken.”

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