Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

For Iranian Refugees, from Land of the Free to Endless Punishment (Rena’s Story)

For families with a member on a state sex offender registry, life in the U.S. resembles that under a despotic regime. That’s no exaggeration—“Rena” and her family, who fled Iran in the 1970s because they were part of a persecuted religious minority, have found it out firsthand.

Their son “Mahmoud” is gay and spent much of his life confused about his sexual orientation. “He was afraid to tell us,” says Rena. When he was 21, he touched his 14-year-old teenage cousin while the cousin was asleep. The cousin’s family reported it to police, and he was prosecuted.

In preparation for his court hearing, Mahmoud underwent a forensic exam by a respected psychologist. The expert concluded that Mahmoud was not pedophile and was a low risk to harm anyone in the future given his confusion about his sexuality and the fact that he had no prior record.

But Mahmoud’s was no Brock Turner case. Quite the opposite–the judge gave Mahmoud eight times the recommended sentence. Instead of 3 to 6 months in prison, he got 4 years plus 10 years on probation. The worst part, though, was that Mahmoud was placed on the state sex offender registry–for life, says Rena.

Rena and her husband are committed to helping Mahmoud get his life back together. He’s been out of prison for about 5 months. When he was convicted, he was in dentistry school in another state, and Rena and her husband had intended to move there to help him readjust and make plans.

But now he’s barred from reentering dental school, and he’ll never get a license to practice. He’ll likely never be able to buy a house near a park or school. He’s prohibited from being around much of his extended family, since there would be children present. If he ever has children of his own, in many states he won’t be able to set foot on school grounds without an escort.

In their commitment to their son, Rena and her husband are everything that the criminal justice system could wish for—time and again, studies show that ex-offenders who have support are less likely to reoffend than those who don’t. But in America, supporting a family member on a state registry means upending, perhaps abandoning, your own life.

So now Rena and her husband are strongly considering leaving the country they fled to after religious persecution. “Leaving is the only solution,” says Rena. “There’s no hope here. I understand that a person has to be punished. I understand that the authorities have to protect the public. But you have to look at each individual case,” she says. If they do leave, they won’t be the only family to have fled because of a state sex registry.

Rena wouldn’t be opposed to placing those who have offended more than once on a sex registry, she says. But for Mahmoud, there’s no reward for not offending—he’ll spend the rest of his life as a pariah if he stays in America.

“There has to be light at the end of the tunnel,” she adds. “We came here to live in peace, but that’s no longer possible.”

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