In 2013, San Antonio’s city council hatched a plan that would make life even harder for Jason and Lisa and other families with someone on the state sex offender registry. That fall, a city councilman with ambitions to higher office introduced an ordinance to ban those on the registry from the city’s parks.
The news hit the Dehoyos hard. Lisa and Jason ferried their kids to public parks almost every week, and one of their son’s Little League games took place in one of them. It also would mean that government was further reneging on Jason’s deal of 20 years earlier—a guilty plea in exchange for probation. The sex offender registry and new rules like this one were nowhere in sight at the time.
Lisa couldn’t stand by and let it happen. Till then, she’d not wanted her family’s news out in the open–the risks to her job and family weren’t worth it. But now she took a public stand. She wrote letters to the editor, called councilmembers, appeared on local TV, testified before the city council about what the change would mean for her two boys.
The scientific evidence that such laws inflicted more harm than good was on her side. Numerous independent studies have found that residency and presence restrictions do nothing to deter sex offenses and may even make recidivism more likely by destabilizing the lives of registrants.
The law’s supporters had a response—it was meant to apply only to those on the list who truly posed a danger. It wouldn’t be applied indiscriminately, meaning the sheriff’s office could grant exemptions on a case by case basis.
Those assurances in hand, in December of that year, the council unanimously voted for the law, and it took effect 4 months later.
The loss was devastating for the Dehoyos, but they wanted to salvage what they could. So in late May, Jason and Lisa went to apply for the promised exemption. After all, Jason had taken his plea deal 20 years earlier. He’d had no subsequent arrests or convictions. He’d been a good father. Just to be sure law enforcement staff would get the message, they took along their two boys.
Lisa had called ahead to make sure the office would be open when they got there. But when they did, the door was shut tight. They knocked for five minutes or so. An officer finally came to the door. They told him they just wanted to drop off their application for the exemption. And that wasn’t all—they’d brought two letters, one from their older son’s teacher and the other from Jason’s boss. Both vouched for Jason, explaining that he posed no threat.
The officer treated them like they’d asked to be let off from an armed robbery with a warning: “Yea, you’re probably not going to get an exemption,” he told them. “Can’t you just take your kids to another park?” He clearly didn’t know the law, which applied to every park in the city.
Lisa was so angry after that that she called all of the councilmembers who had voted for it. “I told them if people like Jason get denied—people who are 17 who have a 16-year-old girlfriend that and that was like 20 years ago–if you’re denying people like that, who’s going to get approved?”
About a month later, Jason and Lisa got a message on their voicemail from the police department—they’d been turned down.
So they pulled their son out of Little League. Lisa could take him, but her work schedule was complicated, and her son wanted his dad there. Now they were also barred going as a family to San Antonio’s centerpiece, the River Walk.
They’ve researched how they might leave the country. But that would mean leaving family, with no guarantee that life would be better. “I don’t think other countries want sex offenders,” says Lisa. And if they ever tried to re-enter, Lisa has been told that authorities make it tough on those on the list.
The Dehoyos and others who have family on the list live in a version of the United States that’s almost unrecognizable to the rest of us. “Give people some hope,” Lisa says. “I mean you sentence somebody to register for life. You’re like where’s the light at the end of the tunnel? There’s not one.”