Episode 157 - Marginalized By List
Published March 26, 2015
SPECIAL GUESTS: Lenore Skenazy, Galen Baughman & Josh Gravens. In episode 147, we talked with Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, about how childhood and parenting have changed in recent decades. But there's a darker side to the fear-driven policies that our politicians have been pushing for us. We're joined in this episode by some friends of Lenore, along with the author herself, to talk about the sex offender registry, criminal justice reform, prisons and the way we handle the complexity of our problems. Recorded 3/22/2015.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Lenore's Free Range Kids site
Book Lenore to speak via her site
World's Worst Mom on Discovery Life channel
Episode 147 - Kids On The Range, our previous episode with Lenore Skenazy (released 2/19/2015)
More coming soon...
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #157. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us on this episode are two guys who Lenore Skenazy has introduced us to--Lenore was our guest in episode #147. I’d like to welcome to the show Galen Baughman and Josh Gravens. Guys, thanks for joining us.
Josh Gravens: Thank you. My name is Josh Gravens, and I’m a past Soros Justice Fellow and I’m the chair of Texas CURE, and I’m a community organizer and activist in Dallas, Texas.
Galen Baughman: And my name is Galen Baughman. I’m a policy advocate for CURE in Washington, D.C. I do federal policy reform advocacy on issues around mass incarceration and particularly focus on the problem of the sex offender legislation that’s been rising in our country.
MJ: How did you guys meet up with Lenore?
GB: It’s a fantastic story. Josh managed to get arrested with Lenore in Texas. Why don’t you tell them about it, Josh?
JG: Yeah, it was real exciting. I found out that Lenore Skenazy was coming to Dallas for the reform sex offender law--Skenazy rhymes with crazy. Anyways, we connected on Twitter and we were looking forward to meeting each other. I actually had to register when she was coming to town because I, myself, was placed on the Texas sex offender registry at the age of 13. She had expressed an interest in registration law and policy, and I said “Well, why don’t you come on down and I’ll show you what registration looks like with the Dallas Police Department.” So, I go and pick her up and we have a brunch, and then we head into the police department and she’s looking around and talking to people, and I go back and they’re talking to me. This guy comes up and says “Mr. Gravens, you’re under arrest.” I said “For what?” and he said “For failure to register.” I said “What does it look like I’m doing?” Anyways, long story short, Lenore was there and they arrested me. The funny side is Lenore is from New York, and so she doesn’t drive. This is Dallas, Texas, so you can’t get anywhere without a car. So, she was stuck at the police department with a car that she didn’t know how to use. Here I am getting carted off to jail. The great part of it all was the police officer says “Why did you bring a reporter with you to register?” and Lenore quips back quickly “Everyone should take a reporter with them to register!”
MJ: Galen, how about you? How did you hook up with Lenore?
GB: I was actually at the same conference with Josh. We were out there to shoot some video for a project we were doing at MIT around people on the registry and how the registry impacts their lives, trying to humanize the problem. I was taken aback when I saw how Josh had been arrested. I think I found out through a phone call with Lenore, somehow she managed to track me down and get in touch with me and we connected at the conference. Her work for Free Range Kids focuses on parenting from hysteria and the problems that that causes, not just for the children who are suffering from this kind of parenting strategy but how its begun to change our broader culture. Much of the work that we do revolves around this panic in our society around people labeled as sex offenders and how this approach actually is counterproductive--focusing on people who are labeled on the registry doesn’t promote public safety because most of these people are highly unlikely to reoffend. People on the registry reoffend at a rate of about 5%, which means that 95% of people on the public list never go on to commit a new offense. Meanwhile, the vast majority of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by people who are known to the victim, people who are close to the family, usually it’s a family member. Investing all of our law enforcement resources into people who have committed offenses in the past and ignoring the vast majority is the problem, as we’re not keeping kids safer. So, Lenore and I have very similar problems that we’re trying to address.
MJ: Whenever your average person hears the term “sex offender list,” I think it conjures up a whole cluster of images. How does that relate to the people who are actually on the list? I assume that with your guys’ background, you have a much better sense of the people that are actually on that list. Does it match up with the way media conjures that image of someone waiting to steal a child from a playground, hustle them off to a van somewhere or something like that?
GB: No, of course it can’t, since we know that 95% of people never reoffend. If everybody on the list, or even a substantial number of people on the list, were the type of person who was likely to abduct a child in public and cart them off to do all sorts of nefarious things to them, we would have a much, much higher reoffense rate. It turns out listing someone’s identity does a great job marginalizing them in the community but it doesn’t actually contribute to public safety. So, if someone wants to commit a sex offense, being on the sex offender registry isn’t going to stop them from doing that. They might not do it in their neighborhood, but there’s never been any study that links where somebody lives with their likelihood to commit a crime anyway. So, the sort of phenomenon of residency restriction, with keeping them far away from schools and other places where children gather--there’s no correlation with where someone lives, if they’re close to that park or school, and whether they’ll reoffend or not. The registry isn’t performing that function. The label of “sex offender” has become so overly broad that we’re including all of these people who have done things that are either just slightly obnoxious, like urinating in public, or possibly skinny dipping with their girlfriend in the ‘70s, and people who have engaged in behaviors that are not criminalized in other countries, like having a boyfriend or girlfriend who’s in high school when they’re in their early 20s or late teens. We would not imagine those people are somehow likely to abduct children and rape them, and yet we treat them all the same.
MJ: You mentioned the marginalization--what are some of the ways that being on the list really impacts people’s lives?
JG: The marginalization is significant. When you talk about, for example, these policies called residency restriction, where usually city councils, or small jurisdictions, or some states implement this barrier of anywhere from 500 to 2,000 feet, where registrants and their families--it’s directed at the registrants, but the collateral consequence is obviously the effect to the families they live with--they cannot live within 2,000 feet of schools, parks, pools, elderly facilities, hospitals, colleges, bus stops, etc. I’ll use the city of Lewisville, Texas as an example, they passed a residency restriction in 2008 or 2009, and during that time they had 300 to 400 registrants in the city. You flash forward to today, they have 12 registrants that live in the city. Further, out of a city that has a population of 105,000, there are only 40 houses that a registrant could possibly live, and a only a few of those come on the market. So, registry restrictions are basically a way to push registrants from the city. Again, as Galen mentioned, there’s no correlation between where a registrant lives and committing sexual offenses. Like he said, 95% of people that commit a sex offense are found on no registry. When you go even further about marginalization, you could talk about jobs. Very few businesses even want to touch somebody that’s on the registry. Some jurisdictions place the job place on the registry, and so literally now you have not just Josh Gravens on the registry, but you have McDonald’s on the registry too--they’re just absolutely unwilling to touch that. To some extent, insurance companies will actually say “We’re not going to cover you because the liability is so great,” which is really interesting when you talk about the recidivism rate. The DOJ says that over a three-year span it’s 3.5%. When you put that in correlation with general offense recidivism rate, which is 67%, it’s outrageous. I, myself, am a parent. I have five kids, and I can tell you the marginalization of me has very much transferred to my kids. My kids right along with me have been homeless. I’ve been unemployed and have been unable to provide a living for them, and I was just 12-years-old when I committed my offense. So, you have many people that look like me, talk like me, many people who came on different paths to the registry and they’ve all suffered from the vast array of collateral consequences.
MB: Are you on this list for life?
JG: I am not--not where I live. But let’s say I move to South Carolina. I could be and would be if I moved there. We have this crazy patchwork of different laws, which ironically the federal government, through the Adam Walsh Act, looked to standardize because it’s so vastly different; a person moving from one state to another couldn’t possibly know what the law would be that was applicable to them. So, the federal government through SORNA, the Sex Offender Registration Notification Act, looked to make the laws uniform and, in many ways, they exacerbated what the laws were. In some states they said “Here’s the federal threshold. We’re going to go above and beyond.” So modeling the federal registration, they actually--such as in South Carolina--required lifetime GPS location for anybody. There was a kid that was actually 11-years-old that did the same thing that I did that was given lifetime registration and lifetime GPS monitoring.
MB: Are there other states that have “normalized” it? I’m not actually sure how to ask that--but where they weren’t as strict, or where they were maybe more rational?
JG: Not that I’m aware of. There are some states where their courts have rolled back the law, but there are very few that have legislatively rolled it back or changed the policy.
MJ: What would you guys say to the people that think “Well, the people that are on that list, they’ve obviously have done something wrong” and seem to have that attitude that of “You didn’t get on that list if you didn’t do something serious, and that’s a serious list, and we want to track these people and we want punishment”? What do you say to the people that feel that way, to get them to understand the complex issues that it seems this brings up?
Lenore Skenazy: I actually tell them the story of the two guys I had here for brunch today. Josh was 12, played “doctor” with his sister who was eight-years-old; they were in the middle of Texas, no one else around, touched her vagina twice and the girl told mom. “Hey mom, this is weird. I’m mad at Josh!” Mother doesn’t know what to do, so she calls a counseling center. The counselors are mandated reporters if they hear of something that they think of as a sex offense. So, the counselor calls the cops, the cops come the next day, haul Josh off to jail for three and a half years--jail where his head is shaved, he’s deloused with spray, he’s in with all these other kids who are considered sex offenders, many of them virgins. Therapy there involved, “Josh, you have to tell us all your terrible thoughts about all the children you’ve molested!” and Josh is all like “Uhh… I haven’t.” “Josh, you can’t get better unless you open up with us. Tell us really how bad you are.” He was like “Well, I haven’t done anything. I’m a virgin…” “You’re not a virgin, Josh! You’re a sex offender! You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t a sex offender!” So finally, like all the other kids there, he has to come up with dozens of victims and horrible things he’s done, and then, believe it or not, therapy actually involves acting out these things in front of the therapist. You wonder what this therapist really is getting at… But the idea is that this is such a hardened criminal with so many horrible fantasies and so many things that he’s done to children, or will in the future, that this is the only way to get through to him. Finally he’s let out and now he’s on the sex offender registry. He can’t live near a school, he can’t live near a church, he can’t live near a daycare center, a bus stop, a park, a playground. And you have to register all the time. You have to register every year but you also have to register every time you change your hair color, if you change your online name you must go to the registry, and if you change your address, you must go to the registry and inform them within seven days. So, guess what? Over the summer, Josh changed houses and he got there eight days later instead of seven days later, and do you know what he’s facing now for this horrible crime of missing his date by a day?
LS: Take a guess!
MJ: I’ve almost given up guessing on the legal system. It seems so out of proportion.
LS: You want to hear out of proportion? He’s facing 25 years to life.
LS: For playing “doctor” with his sister when he was 12, this 28-year-old is facing a lifetime in prison. So, when people say “Aren’t you terrified of the people on the sex offender list?” and I know from reading that the majority of them actually don’t pose a threat to children, I say “I’m not afraid of these dots on a map because most of them pose no threat to my children.” The people who abuse kids generally know the kids. 90%+ of the abuse against children is perpetrated by somebody they live with or somebody that they know very well, not by passing by a house that happens to be a red dot on the map on the way to school. So, most likely the people around you that are dots on the map, they might not have Josh’s exact story, but the recidivism rate, which means the rate of reoffending, of hurting anybody again, of going back to jail for a time, among sex offenders is the lowest except for murderers. Arsonists commit more arson, burglars commit more burglaries, and shoplifters and drug dealers--they all go back to prison at a rate of about 75%. The rate of sex offenders is about 3% to 5%, and the most I’ve heard of is sometimes 10%, depending on the study you’re reading. I can see where people are scared because we’ve been told that the people on the sex offender registry are all horrible monsters who see a child and go crazy and have to drag them off and rape them, but the reality is… Let me tell you Galen’s story, if I may. Galen is 19, he’s off at college, he goes to a party where he meets a 14-year-old. They start corresponding online because Galen is at Indiana, where he’s studying to be an opera singer, and the 14-year-old is here in my state of New York. The mom, who’s spying on her son’s emails, sees that he’s talking to a 19-year-old male and is concerned. She’s worried that her son is gay, or “What’s he doing talking to this man?” She brings the computer to the local district attorney, who gives the computer to the cops and a cop proceeds to continue talking to Galen online as if he is the 14-year-old. He impersonates the 14-year-old, and while impersonating him, says “Galen, send me porn showing kids my age or I won’t write you again.” Galen says no. “Please?” “No.” “Pretty please?” “No.” They say “I won’t ever be your friend again!” So finally Galen relents, does what anybody could do, googles gay porn and sends him some images, and now he’s a child pornographer. Now the cops have a warrant to go get his computer from his dorm room in Indiana, and on it they see emails back and forth between him and another 14-year-old, and they did have sex once, but they can see from the emails that it was consensual. They go to the 14-year-old and say “You’ve been raped by a 19-year-old,” and the 14-year-old says “No I haven’t! This was a consensual relationship.” But then they go to the parents of the 14-year-old and say “Your son has been raped by a 19-year-old” and they say “Oh my God, let’s prosecute!” Galen goes to jail for six and a half years, and he can tell you what happened after that.
MB: It seems to me, from a logical standpoint, that there needs to be more--because right now you’re either a sex offender or you’re not a sex offender. But to me, it seems like there needs to be levels of it.
LS: Or maybe not levels of it. Maybe it’s just “You’re a rapist or you’re not a rapist,” because these aren’t levels, right?
MB: I know, but from a logical standpoint there are huge differences between--if I’m 19 and my girlfriend is 16 and I get arrested for that, that’s a huge difference from “I’m 35 and I’m touching four-year-olds.” That’s my point.
LS: I totally agree.
MB: The two stories that you’ve told us, to me those are completely different, such as instead of him being 12 and his sister 8, if he was 32 and it was his eight-year-old cousin. That’s a lot different.
LS: I agree. However, our laws don’t see it that way. Our laws are written in such a way that if you’ve had contact with a minor, that’s that. If it’s consensual--consent doesn’t exist in our laws for anybody pretty much under the age of 18. So, it’s a new way of looking at humanity, as if no teenager has ever wanted to have sexual relations with any other teenager unless they’re all over 18 or all under 18. And actually even under 18--gosh, there was a case recently in, what was it, Utah? Where it was two 14-year-olds and they were both prosecuted as each other’s perps. The laws are absolutely insane.
MJ: It does seem like we’re applying, like Matt said, a black and white view of things to something that’s actually very grey. I can certainly remember being 14 and ogling 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds as I was coming up. I worked as a lifeguard at the pool, and we actually had sort of a running joke of the girls that were like 13 or 14 that looked like they were 19 or 20. In hearing the stories you told for Josh and Galen, my own view of the criminal justice system has been that the people that may know you and know your situation and have heard your stories, they listen and they think “Oh my God, that’s terrible! The legal system is obviously wrong!” and yet people that haven’t, when they hear that you’re in this category or that category, or that just in general terms that this is what happened, they seem much less sympathetic and since the legal system in general is trying to be somewhat at an objective level, that we’re getting these very out of proportion responses to things. Does that match what you guys have found? That people that know you guys and know your stories are very sympathetic, but people that are meeting you for the first time or haven’t really heard the details are not as sympathetic.
LS: Guys, chime in because the first time I met you guys you were immediately very likeable. But I was open to hearing your stories. So, what do you think? When people meet you and they know you’re a sex offender, what happens?
JG: I’ve lost jobs because of the registry, and while that’s not necessarily about people meeting me and making a judgement call and things like that… Even in the realm of advocacy--people who are theoretically on your side, they’re fighting for criminal justice reform, there’s an apprehension. In a meeting, a guy told me one time, “Man, I was apprehensive. It was hard for me to feel sympathetic. I went and I read your story and I just want you to know that my mind has fundamentally shifted and changed on this topic.” But yes, I’ve lost many friends because of just being on the registry and I was never afforded the chance to explain what happened. While I’m now 28, at the time when my registration was public, my picture changes right along with me, my age changes right along with me, but my victim’s age remains the same. So when people look at the registry profile and they see a grown man’s picture and then they see a young person’s age, there’s an assumption that automatically falls into there and they judge you not based on the facts of the case but just the picture and then your victim’s age.
LS: That is one of the bad things about the registry, is that yes, you can be a 14-year-old who has had sex with a 12-year-old and then your picture is still there when you’re a 30-year-old, and it says “For relations with a 12-year-old,” and then you think “Oh my God, there’s this 30-year-old creep who preys upon 12-year-old girls around the corner!” and you don’t have any idea that, in fact, what happened was 16 years ago when he was 14. So, it looks a lot scarier when you look at this sex offender map. I think the sex offender map is one of the top ten apps that’s downloaded, and yet it’s a new thing. When I was growing up, there was no sex offender registry, certainly no public registry, and no downloadable apps and maps. So you think “Well, I’m glad we have them because they’re keeping us so much safer today and helping us keep our children safe,” which is something that I believe in. I believe in keeping children safe. But it turns out that the sex offender registry hasn’t moved the needle one iota in terms of keeping children safer. It hasn’t done anything to safeguard our kids at all. One of the reasons is that it’s not walking past a predator’s house that gets a kid abused. Most children are abused within their family or with a close personal friend. So, simple walking by the house that’s a red dot on the map is not going to have any effect on the kid. The entire premise of the public registry, that it’s going to alert us to dangers in our neighborhood so that we can safeguard our children, it turns out to be false because there’s no difference between neighborhoods before or after the registry in terms of the number of crimes against children that are committed.
MJ: It seems like that would be a much tougher problem to solve, the fact that most kids are abused by someone they know or things like that. That’s a really hard problem to deal with, and yet it’s so much easier to throw together a list and a registry and numbers and an app and all of that, and politicians can say “See? We’re doing something!” Lenore, when you were first a guest with us, one of the guys that I work with, he has a daughter who I think is in high school now, he brought up the sex offender app on his phone. We were talking about the episode that we recorded with you and he was very emotional about the danger that all those dots represented. “How do you explain that?” It seems to me that there’s a disconnect between people’s perception of it and what the actual threat is as far as the people that are on that list, the threat they represent, and how it’s portrayed. It seems that dealing with the actual problem would be much more difficult, so there’s always that temptation to do the easy thing, and because most people don’t face those consequences, they just write it off.
LS: They ignore the consequences to the people that are the dots and they’re not helping with any of the people who aren’t the dots, so I think you’re right. There’s a very vast emotional feeling when I think about it too. I mean, who can think about a child violated or raped? There’s nothing that makes you madder or sadder. Yet, like I said, the majority of the people who are on the sex offender registry do not pose a threat to children, which is hard to believe. I always print out this Economist article for people that talks about it, the title is Sex Offender Laws: Unjust and Ineffective, which sums up what their research is about. You’re right, if you don’t have somebody on the registry or behind bars, in a cage for two years, three years, four years--in Galen’s case, remember he had sex once with a 14-year-old when he was a teen, he was behind bars eating gruel basically made out of chopped up parts of chickens that you couldn’t sell to people out in the real world, because he became an “unreal person” because he’s a prisoner who doesn’t count, he was eating that for nine years. Nine years he was behind bars. For four and a half of those, he was in solitary. If that’s not Holocaust-level torture, I’m not sure what it is. What I mean is that it’s torture, because we have laws that fail to distinguish between John Wayne Gacy and two teenagers having sex.
MJ: You guys have mentioned your activism. For people that see this now as a problem, or maybe didn’t see it as a problem but have now listened to your stories and may now think it might be, how would you suggest they get involved in trying to fix this or change it?
GB: The main work that’s happening right now is trying to raise awareness amongst the public that the solutions that lawmakers are offering based on sound bites aren’t targeting the problem, they’re just targeting the media cycle. The more that we can help people have conversations inside their own community--their friend networks, their neighbors--about these problems and what they’re learning, and sharing with each other that this is a problem and that the identity of a sex offender is not a static thing… It’s not that there is this label that can be attached to you that makes you a scary person and dehumanizes you. The more that conversation starts to happen, the easier it is for advocates like Josh and I to talk to lawmakers about shifting their focus away from sound bite legislation and beginning to address the causes of child sexual abuse. But you’re absolutely right, that the easy thing to do is to pick somebody that the public can be scared of and then institute increasingly punitive and restrictive policies against that populace.
LS: Which is exactly what’s happening. There’s something called the Adam Walsh Act, which is named for a boy who was killed and beheaded. When you talk about a parent’s worse nightmare, that’s it. But it does something completely arbitrary, which is that if a state enacts the Adam Walsh Act, anybody who is on the sex offender registry, and it could be somebody like Josh or Galen, for something that they did as a child, even as simple as playing “doctor”--anyone on the registry for ten years is automatically bumped up to staying on the registry for, what, 15 or 25 years? And anybody who is on the registry for 25 years is just automatically on it for life. These are what I would call punishments that change after you’ve served your time and the sentence was met--”You’ll be on the list for ten years.” Then suddenly, out of the blue, the state passes this new law and you’re on it for 15, 20, 25 years. That, to me, strikes me as the craziest idea, that you have served your time and then someone arbitrarily says “Now you’re going to serve some more time.” I’ve never heard of that happening with any other crime.
MB: It almost seems like double jeopardy at that point.
LS: It is, but I think the Supreme Court once upheld--and it was years ago before it was quite as punitive as it is now with people being able to google your picture and know where you live and where you work--but they said “Oh, it’s not punishment. It’s simply community notification. We’re just letting people know where you live because you register.” But of course it’s far more than that, and it’s life-changing for anybody who’s on the list and anybody who loves somebody who is on the list. One thing that people can be aware of is that the Adam Walsh Act is just piling on everyone. It’s not even looking at any case and saying “Oh, THAT’S a particularly dangerous person, that makes sense.” It’s just saying “Everybody who got ten years now gets 20! Everybody who got 20 years now gets life!” The point is that it comes out of nothing that has to do with studying or fixing a problem, or making the public more safe. It’s simply completely and utter grandstanding, and outrageously cruel at that.
MB: I’ve heard about a lot of states recently starting to also pass laws that say if you’re 14 and you’re sexting a friend of yours that’s also 14, that they want to prosecute them as sex offenders. Obviously we didn’t have that problem when I was 14 because we didn’t have camera phones, but I did a lot of stupid crap when I was 14. If it haunted me for the rest of my life… You’re basically just ruining a child’s life.
LS: Not to mention the family’s lives. Now you have somebody in prison, you spend all of your money on the lawyers and you can only visit them once a month. There’s something weird about the way we think of sex. I guess maybe it’s our puritanical backgrounds or whatever, but it feels like sex is okay so long as you are over 18 and nothing should be stirring before then, otherwise it’s very bad and somebody must be punished.
GB: Over 18 and straight.
LS: Yeah. There’s something odd about these laws, and the fact that they’re all really new is also strange, because it’s not like we suddenly have so many more sexual predators and perpetrators and crimes--we don’t. Crime is actually down since the ‘90s. It’s something where the politicians recognize it gets votes. If you can say “I love children! I want the best for them!” and everyone goes “Yay!” and he says “So we’re going to give these guys five years!” “Yay!” Well, what can you do now? You’ve already given them five years. “Well, I’ll give them ten years!” “Yay!” It’s just the easiest thing to do, especially if you never bother to think about the humanity of the people that you’re sending to a cage. Also, in Josh’s case--Josh’s sister forgives him, she can’t believe that she got him in this kind of trouble; the 14-year-old that Galen was with when he was 19 refused to prosecute, it was a consensual relationship, and yet the full force of the law came down on both of them as if they were rapists.
MJ: Guys, thanks so much for joining us and sharing your stories. It’s definitely eye-opening, and hopefully things work out for you guys. I wish you the best.
GB: Thank you so much.
JG: Thank you. Thanks Matt, thanks Mike.
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