Collateral Damage in America's War on Sex Crimes

“The Registry Laws Aren’t Protecting My Kids” (Phyllis’ Story)

When Phyllis married Greg in 2012, it could have opened up new vistas. Most times, marriages widen the circle, bringing together families and friends from each side. In Phyllis and Greg’s case, their wedding did the opposite, winnowing their network till it excludes nearly everyone except them.

That’s because Greg is on a state sex offender registry. Greg was previously married, and in 2000 his ex-wife told police that their nine-year-old daughter had told her that Greg had touched her inappropriately once when he was drunk. Greg claims to have no memory of the incident. But the accusation seared him so deeply that he tried twice to commit suicide in the year following, only pulling out of his depression after getting mental health treatment through a VA hospital.

The prosecutor offered him a plea deal–if he went to trial, he’d get 15 years in prison if found guilty. But if he pled, he’d spend only three in prison and be on the sex offender registry for life. He took the deal.

He did his three years in prison and got out in 2006. He met Phyllis several years later when they lived across the street from each other. Phyllis has three children from a previous marriage, and shortly after they met, Phyllis got the feeling that he’d spent time in prison. She asked him what had happened. “If I tell you, you’ll leave,” Greg told her. “Why do you say that?” she asked. “That’s what all the rest have done,” Greg replied.

But Phyllis didn’t.

She’s paid dearly for that decision. A month after she and Greg got married, her best friend held a cookout and called Phyllis to invite her. Phyllis asked to bring Greg, but her friend’s husband said no. After that, her friend stopped returning her calls and emails. They’ve never spoken since.

Later, a babysitter tried to turn her network against her. Phyllis had posted something on her Facebook page about her opposition to a local ordinance regarding sex offenders. The babysitter put up a long post attacking Phyllis for marrying somebody on the list.

Worst, Phyllis’ former husband wrested custody of their three children from her six months after Phyllis and Greg’s marriage—a judge ruled that the children were better off with her husband because Phyllis was married to someone on the list. She now sees them only every other weekend.

Her former husband and his mother have been trying to convince the children to cut her off completely because they claim it’s dangerous to spend any time around Greg. One day, Phyllis’ five-year-old daughter asked her whether she should be afraid of Greg. Phyllis asked why. “Because my grandmother told me that guys like Greg are just waiting for the right time to hurt you,” she told Phyllis. “She told me that I’m not allowed to like Greg, but I do like him.” Phyllis had no words. Finally she said, “You can like him–just don’t tell them that you do.”

Greg has few connections of his own. He lost his job at Denny’s in 2010–one Halloween night, the local sheriff called his manager multiple times over the course of an hour or two to ask whether Greg was still on his shift. (Halloween restrictions on those on sex registries are common, even though there’s as yet no evidence that registrants are more likely to commit crimes that day.) The next morning when Greg went into work, his manager fired him.

Phyllis isn’t sure what sex registries accomplish–she points to research showing that they haven’t reduced the sexual victimization of children or recidivism rates. (Indeed, six studies over the last 15 years have all found that they don’t reduce sexual offending.) What’s worse, she’s lost her own children, and she’s uneasy with how they’re being raised by her ex-husband. “I feel like the law hasn’t protected my kids,” says Phyllis.

Perhaps worst, the narrowing of Phyllis and Greg’s world—the severing of their relationships and connections to the community–is an outcome that’s exactly contrary to what a wealth of research shows reduces re-offense rates among ex-offenders.

That is, those who have committed crimes do best when they have jobs, have friends and family to support them, and are connected to the community. Phyllis says she completely trusts Greg and that he’ll never reoffend again.

But to her it seems the system is doing everything possible to make sure he fails.

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