Get Informed : Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email. Sarah Lustbader and Vaidya Gullapalli Oct 31, In leaked audio, prosecutor admits locking people up is not about public safety. Shannon Jones, a supervising officer, said this helps the community feel safer while children are out trick-or-treating.
The sex offenders are no more dangerous on Halloween than they are on Nov. Parolees are not allowed to have Halloween candy in their possession. Fearmongering is not limited to Halloween. It is an integral part of the way law enforcement justifies itself. In Austin, Texas , government agencies are preparing to clear out homeless encampments under highways under the auspices of public safety.
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In New York, where criminal justice reform laws are poised to take effect in the coming months, fearmongering is everywhere. The new laws limit bail, expand pretrial discovery, and encourage speedy trials. One area of reform is pretrial detention, which will be curtailed, though generally not when it comes to those facing violent felony charges.
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Another area is discovery, where New York has some of the most severely lopsided practices favoring prosecutors, significantly trailing other states, including Texas. Some district attorneys, as the famously sensationalist New York Post editorial board wrote yesterday, have been sounding the alarm.
But we know that plenty of punitive prosecutors are not punitive out of a genuine fear for public safety. The real reason prosecutors oppose these reforms is that it gives defendants a fairer shot at trial, and means prosecutors will have to work harder to prove that someone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, as they are required to do. Wait the 30 days.
It should also be available to law enforcement only for the most serious of crimes, like murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. No more sniffing through motor vehicle department databases for unlawful immigrants, as ICE has done. As it turned out, Sarah was just 14 — a fact that surprised Henry. He had no idea she was that young; he had no reason to think she was not as old as she'd said.
The charge was a fourth-degree misdemeanor in New Jersey, and as a result of a plea bargain — Henry took the deal because he'd been told if he didn't he would get jail time — he was given 18 months probation and was required to register with the police as a sex offender for 10 years. Notably, under New Jersey law he was registered on a database of offenders that was private and used only by police.
Henry completed his probation and complied with the registry requirement — updating his personal information and address at designated intervals. His case didn't get through the system "until , so I didn't start the list until ," he said. When he was preparing to move south to be closer to his new wife's family, he checked in with police. They told him that because his charge was so minor they weren't sure he'd have to be listed on Texas' sex offender registry, and that even if he did have to register, his information would remain on a list compiled for police eyes only.
When he balked about the arbitrary change in terms, he says he was told that if he didn't like it he should "feel free to leave Texas. Henry's story is not an uncommon one, says Mary Sue Molnar, founder of the nascent sex offender law reform group Texas Voices.
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Molnar's son is in prison for what she says was a consensual sexual relationship with a girl six years his junior. The original idea for increasing penalties and restrictions, and for creating the public registry, was that harsh punishment and the public branding of offenders would enhance public safety — saving children, especially, from falling victim to sexual predators. In practice, however, the rapid expansion of crime and punishment in this area of the law has created a clumsy system that has diluted those original intentions beyond recognition.
As of March 1, there were nearly 63, persons on Texas' public database administered by the state's Department of Public Safety, which adds roughly new names to the list each week. The database includes not only serial rapists and pedophiles but also thousands of offenders like Henry and like Molnar's son, whose conduct, while considered criminal because the girls involved were younger than the legal age of consent in Texas, that's 17 , is hardly as alarming as that of a middle-aged man with a demonstrable sexual penchant for prepubescent girls — the sort of predator that in theory the laws target.
The registry now includes not only these "Romeo and Juliet" cases — youthful, consensual relationships — but others caught in the criminal justice web for things such as indecent exposure which also includes the "poor drunk" popped by police while urinating behind a 7-Eleven in the middle of the night, says attorney Bill Habern, a veteran Texas pardon and parole specialist ; it has never been retooled to differentiate among offenders and their offenses. So the crimes of serial rapists and pedophiles have been conflated with much more minor offenses under the catch-all term "sex offender," leading many to believe that everyone listed on the registry is in fact worthy of continuing public scorn and fear.
Greg Moss. An expert on the enforcement of the state's sex offender laws, Moss is the former supervisor over the APD's Sex Offender Apprehension and Registration Unit, a three-detective squad tasked with keeping track of more than 1, sexual offenders registered as living in the city of Austin — including Henry.
Instead, a growing body of research on the effect of broad sex offender laws reflects that requiring thousands of individuals to register for increasingly long periods of time actually undermines public safety. Moreover, research also reflects that the restrictions placed on individuals by the municipalities in which they live — such as barring individuals from living near schools, parks, or in a home with young children, even if they're the offender's own children or siblings — create extensive collateral damage. But there's no "delineation of who is dangerous or not.
While neither Molnar nor Henry, who is also a member of Texas Voices, argue that the state shouldn't be tracking individuals who are high-risk sexual predators, they do argue that current laws trap too many people and do much more harm than good. In short, the state should make sure that it stays true to the original intent of the registry and other sex-offense-related laws — such as by creating viable ways for some to earn a way off the registry.
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But the ability of the state to actually create a path to deregister people is currently stalled. At issue instead is whether the state will move in to implement the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, a federal law passed four years ago that would, in essence, require the state to again expand its registry while making it even more difficult for low-risk offenders, like Henry and hundreds of others who are among the ranks of Texas Voices, to earn a chance to escape the list.
The political tide may finally be turning. There were once very few voices at the Capitol decrying the extremely punitive consequences of sex offender laws, and even fewer were the voices of former offenders whose lives have been permanently damaged. One is Texas Voices, which Molnar started in What began with just a handful of participants has grown to include active members and more than 1, who have signed on to a petition to support reforming Texas law.
Seven-year-old Ashley Estell disappeared from a Plano playground on Sept. The following day her body was found on the side of a road, six miles away; she had been strangled. Police quickly found and charged with the crime year-old Michael Blair — he'd been seen driving past the site where Estell's body was dumped with several teddy bears in his car, and prosecutors later said that hair found at the crime scene was a match to his.
Although Blair proclaimed his innocence, he was convicted of capital murder and, after a minute jury deliberation, sentenced to death. Estell's murder prompted Texas lawmakers to get tough on those who would harm children and, although there was no evidence that Estell was sexually abused, to focus that toughness on laws aimed at punishing "sex offenders.
The facts surrounding Estell's disappearance and death combined with the facts of Blair's criminal history prompted state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, to call for swift and strong action against sexual predators. We always wait for the big tragedy before anything is done. Michael Blair should never have been free to roam that park. In the years since Estell's death, Texas laws relating to sexual offenses and sexual offenders expanded dramatically. They now include more than 20 offenses considered sexual in nature, many of which will land a convicted person on the state's sex offender registry for life — indeed, one of Shapiro's successful bills made registration retroactive for individuals convicted of crimes dating as far back as Have these laws made the public safer?
The answer from a growing number of experts is a very firm "no. As such, these laws create "impacts that are broad, and Family members, even those who do not live with [registered sex offenders], experience harassment, threats, violence, economic hardships, difficulties with housing, and psychological stresses simply because they are related to a sex offender," continues the study. Many of these laws were rushed onto the books with little thought to their consequences and without the benefit of scientific research. What we thought might have been a good idea hasn't turned out that way — not unlike the way the Estell case turned out.
Blair was exonerated in after new genetic testing proved that the hair from the crime scene was not his. Estell's real killer remains at large; the laws rushed onto the books in the wake of her murder remain — and, many argue, they pose a mounting problem for the state's criminal justice system.
On the agenda was the committee's first interim charge, to study the "efficiency and fairness" of the sex offender registry system and make recommendations for improving it "if necessary" and to consider whether Texas should implement the Adam Walsh Act. Among the more than people in attendance were dozens from Texas Voices — so many that the committee had to open up an overflow room to accommodate the crowd.
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It was the best turnout so far for the fledgling group, which only started working Capitol halls during the session. Molnar, a gregarious year-old mother of two from San Antonio, now spends her days fielding dozens of calls and letters and coordinating with Jan Fewell a member from Williamson County, who joined after a friend of her daughter landed in prison for a "Romeo and Juliet" teen romance , who works tirelessly to investigate the veracity of the stories offenders share with the group.
Molnar recalls talking with attorney Habern when she was just beginning to get the group together. Don't be surprised, he told her, if this project never gets off the ground. It's a population of offenders so marginalized that they're unlikely to want to go public with their stories, he advised. Instead, the opposite occurred.
The ranks of Texas Voices have swelled in just two years to include some active members — folks who come to meetings now held in cities across the state , who call and write lawmakers to lobby for a more sober approach to sex offender laws, and who are willing to attend meetings at the Capitol and publicly share their stories. In a short period of time, Molnar says, she's learned a lot — including that many of these cases are not what they seem. And there are countless other cases "where it looks like one thing and then," when you hear the underlying facts of the case, "you find out it's something else.
That's certainly the case with Henry and with others just like him, including Heather Kelley's husband, who will also have to register for life, the result of a relationship he had with a year-old girl when he was just Peter Kelley asked that we not use his real name was still in high school when he met and began dating his "victim.
In Peter's case, a teacher turned him in after finding a note the girl had written, which included details of their relationship; the teacher told a counselor, who told police. Peter took a plea bargain for five years probation and lifetime registration. He was doing fine to begin with, attending the weekly sex offender treatment sessions. But then, three years later, he got a DWI; he was sent to prison, where he spent four years and eight months.
Since then, it's been tough for Kelley and Peter, who now have twin toddler sons. The onerous terms of probation — and the specter of being labeled for life as a sex offender — have really taken a toll on the family. Peter has a hard time finding any work; Kelley, who is disabled, cannot work.
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They've found few places where they can afford to live. And since getting out of prison, Peter has continued to struggle. Peter completed his sentence on the original charge of sexual assault of a child but has since been popped for assault for defending his dad in a bar fight. Even though his latest trouble does not involve any sexual offense, as part of his current probation he must again attend sex offender treatment classes.
Although the U. Supreme Court has said that a person cannot be kicked back to prison strictly for falling behind in such payments, that doesn't seem to apply in Williamson County, say Molnar, Kelley, and others. All it takes, they note, is a single violation — including missing a treatment session — to trigger the revocation process. And some counties are more prone to take action. Indeed, she says she was recently notified that one Harris County Texas Voices member is facing revocation for TV channel surfing and for sending an e-mail to a member of his Alcoholics Anonymous group; under the terms of his treatment contract he is only allowed to watch TV if he knows what channel he wants to watch, and he is banned from sending e-mails not work-related.
The restrictions placed on many offenders take a toll. Kelley is convinced that Peter's subsequent troubles are a direct result of the burden of being branded a sexual offender. Peter has had to get "special permission to go to our church for the Easter egg hunt" because it is a place where children congregate, "and he can't go out on Halloween" with his kids. The stated motivation for keeping such a tight leash on "sex offenders" is the belief that they are more prone to reoffend than other types of criminals.
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