A Subject We’d Rather Avoid: Sex Offenders

Who are sex offenders?

Are they human?

Do they have civil rights?

Why don’t most people understand the impact of the sex offense registry on these citizens’ civil rights?

Most of all, why should I care?

“Every living thing could use a little mercy now,” to quote from Mary Gauthier’s title song, in her album, Mercy Now (2005, UMG Recordings). Those are words I reflect on when any person or group is derided in the media, or by the public, especially via social media’s viral mechanisms. That frenzied mode of communication leads to distortions, oversimplifications, or may be tied in with a string of conspiracy theories that belie an obvious and well-founded simpler truth.

I take up the matter of the sex offense registry, sex offenders, and their civil rights again. I’ve tried in the past. Examples are my novel, ANY JOE, and my numerous letters and emails to editors, legislators, large and small news services or media outlets (PBS and Carolina Public Press are examples). Most of the time there has been no acknowledgement. My hope has been to encourage investigation and discussion, to shed light on these issues, to attempt a real dialogue.

 I’ve been reminded that sex offense laws, “sex offenders” and their civil rights are overwhelming, emotional and complicated issues, ones that are easier to avoid.

To return to the first and the last questions: Who are sex offenders, and why should I care?

These two distinct questions have ultimately the same response:  You should care because the sex offender could be your brother, sister, mom, dad, cousin, and maybe even you. If you or any one you know stepped over the line at some point in time, and violated one of the myriad sexual offense laws, including misdemeanors, that are active on our federal, state, and local law books, you or that loved one may qualify. It’s more likely that you know someone who is a sex offender, by definition, but hasn’t been prosecuted. It’s less likely that the label belongs to a stranger lurking around the corner.

As for legal definitions, Cornell Law school also defines sex offender in simple terms: anyone who has committed a sexual offense https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/sex_offender.

The sign may as well welcome those who qualify, but aren’t registered. It would be more accurate.

Taking it a step in the direction of law enforcement, according to the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, a sex offender is a person who has been convicted of a sex offense.

And a step further: a person on the sex offense registry has committed a crime and has been prosecuted, and convicted, resulting in the obligation to register with local law enforcement, where by proxy, he or she will be added to the state’s registry.

The following are examples of crimes that could be prosecuted, leading to inclusion on a particular state’s registry:

(1) a fifteen  year old sexting a fourteen year old peer

(2) a Romeo-Juliet style romance in which the older eighteen year old boy has consensual sexual relations with his sixteen year old girlfriend

(3) the most violent, sordid and reprehensible: sexual assault or rape of a child.

U.S. sex offense registries include people of many ages, both minors and adults, male and female, numbering 904,000.  There are many other crimes, not listed above, that would qualify as sex offenses, some in which a real person is physically involved, others largely through internet or other electronic communications. Every state sets its own laws.

More on: Why should I care?

The most prescient reason: Sex offense registries do not keep us safer. There’s a lot of research to back that up. Here’s one well-researched article: https://www.tampabay.com/opinion/2021/12/16/sex-offender-registry-laws-dont-work-heres-what-might-column/.

These ineffective registries are a drain on individuals, families and communities: Like others convicted for felonies, laws subject registrants to limitations on voting. But those on the registry also have restrictions on where they live, are subject to limited employment opportunities, and are often prohibited from using parks and libraries among other community resources, all potential healthy avenues and outlets for someone who wants to become a contributing member of the community.

These restrictive laws also create a huge stigma and a sense of isolation, not just for the registered person, but for their family.  We all know that people who are homeless, jobless, ostracized, separated from friends and family, are a huge weight on society, the economy, and the health of our communities. In sum, sex offense registries make things worse, not better.

Why don’t more on the registry speak up for themselves, and why won’t legislators listen?

Some of our civil-rights oriented organizations like NARSOL, WAR, and ACSOL have challenged these laws. There are a variety of smaller, state-based organizations too. (North Carolina’s NCRSOL is one of them). Lawsuits have had limited success, though belonging to such an organization, as do some registrants and their families, helps to build moral and social support, and possibly access legal guidance or referral.

Registrants themselves may shy away from taking on the matter individually, though there are exceptions. It takes courage: registrants are already pariahs in the eyes of the public and most politicians. By the same token, they may wish to protect themselves and their family against public scrutiny and even vigilante violence.

 Few news agencies devote time this issue, and few legislators are willing to put forth any proposal to reform laws. After all, those laws purport to protect children.  They have their public image, their job, and, in the case of politicians, the next election to prepare for.  Who wants to lose the next election by questioning laws that trample on the civil rights of a despised and misunderstood group of people? Many would believe that supporting civil rights for anyone labeled as a sex offender would be tantamount to condoning the most violent and vile of sexual crimes.

All those bothersome explanations aside, it’s a fact that registrants are denied the civil rights that other citizens enjoy, well after having served their time, even compared to those convicted of violent felonies such as murder.

If we want to approach this matter on both a human and honest level, we must accept a basic truth: anyone who has committed any kind of sexual crime is an actual human being, therefore in this country, they are protected by our civil rights laws, once legal obligations have been met.  

I wonder about the lives of the humans I’ve met, read about, or seen on film, that have been affected by because they are listed on the registry. Here are some examples:

(1) As an RN working at a detox/rehab center, what happened to the substance using and freshly detoxed patient, ready for discharge, but whose name was on the registry?  The policy of the institution was: discharge when stable and when safe disposition can be made. This man didn’t have a safe disposition. Family was estranged, and no shelter, no faith-based temporary refuge or treatment program would allow him entry, so after three months of lingering, the detox center could no longer keep him, and he was discharged to the woods.  That happened in spite of diligent efforts of our social worker to find him temporary refuge.

(2) Will the police officers in Fairfax County, Virginia, continue to intercept private electronic communications between citizens without a warrant? (Read Bonnie Burkhardt’s 2020 book: Manufacturing-Criminals: Fourth Amendment Decay in the Electronic Age). Will those same police officers be allowed to impersonate a minor (through words or even using someone else’s photograph) during that interception? All this with the aim of finding a “potential” sex offender through an internet sting operation? https://ncrsol.org/2021/12/who-are-the-real-predators-in-online-sting-operations/

(3) Will the adolescent snap-chatting a peer be required to spend seventy years behind bars for an alleged sex offense, and have a life-long stay on the sex offense registry? https://ncrsol.org/2022/09/snapchatting-teenager-faces-up-to-70-years-for-sexting/

(4) Will the seventy-nine year old, bed-ridden and terminally ill sex offender be given the opportunity to die at home so that his family members can care for him, and stay by his side? Does he actually pose a danger to children in Shenandoah City, Texas? https://narsol.org/2022/12/city-council-says-no-narsol-says-yes/

(5) What about the young woman prosecuted as a sex offender as a teenager, featured in David Feige’s excellent 2016 documentary, Untouchable?  https://www.untouchablefilm.com/ Did she ever get another opportunity to take her kids to the playground? Moreover, did she ever find a job that allowed her the ability to move forward in life and to support her children?

An overriding question is: Are there some human beings who are not worthy of forgiveness, of second chances, of understanding, or of being treated according to a morality that we hold high in raising our children, and in conducting our own lives? If that human being has shown that he or she can live safely among others, should that person be offered the opportunity to reenter the community?

 In this season of grace and giving, it’s worthwhile for all of us to give pause, to ask ourselves: Is there a person or group of people you have trouble accepting? If you’re being honest, it’s likely that you do. It’s a human weakness that we all share. But, given that awareness, we can at least treat them kindly, politely, and fairly.

Beyond that, are there people who we mistreat or fear, based on assumptions we are making about their lives? If any of them are people on the registry, think again. Don’t assume the worst. Offer the gift of mercy, even if it’s just a thought or a prayer or a kind word.

As Mary Gauthier put it: “We stand in the balance, Dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed round, everyone of us could use some mercy now.”

 That’s me and you and even those listed on the registry.

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A Belated Tribute

to you, Chris Smither

Prior to Chris Smither’s concert this past spring at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, I told my husband, “This time I’m going to stay to meet him after the show. We always rush off. I just want to tell him, thank-you.” But there wasn’t an opportunity that night, as there had been many times in the past. It’s understandable. Chris Smither, if I calculate correctly, will turn (or has already turned) seventy-eight this year (according to one of his songs, he was born in ’44). He’s been doing concerts for a long time and has had many post-show meet-and-greets with his fans. Maybe that night, he just needed a well-earned break. I missed out on thanking him in person, but I still feel determined to express my appreciation for him and his music.

So, thank-you Chris Smither.

Thank you for all your soulful songs, all your funny songs, your irreverent songs, all those that made me laugh or cry because they rang true for me. Thanks for all the songs that made me think and think, for your wise words, your humility, your honesty. And for your excellent guitar playing and foot tapping. Nimble, playful, upbeat, downtrodden or desperate, whimsical or resilient — all the moods and tones and timbres depicted in your lyrics were enhanced by your multifaceted musical talents.

Many of your newer songs are musings on a long life, on your many experiences, the lessons you’ve learned. Often your melodies relay honesty about not knowing all the answers, and further, accepting that ignorance with a shrug and a smile. Life goes on, you seem to say. This is what we’ve got, understandable or not. Embrace the lot – good or bad. Sometimes you just can’t choose. Make the most of it. Whistle a tune. Carry on.

On your album, Time Stands Still (2009, Signature Sound Recordings), the title song is an ode to time: She let me know a long time ago, it’s better to say just what you mean. Truth to tell, it hurts like hell, but it keeps me clean. And then there’s the quip: She’s so fast, I know I’ll never last, she’s by me now, but I don’t really mind. I oughta know, cause I move so slow, my shadow often kicks me from behind.

The mundanity, uselessness and confounding circularity of over-thinking are laid forth in the song, “Open Up” (from the album Leave the Light On, Signature Sound Recordings, 2006): I don’t think for pleasure, it’s just hard not to do, My thinking is a measure of how much I need a clue . . . The tune ends with: One small suggestion, quit all these questions, open up, just open up your heart.

Still, you acknowledge the unfettered descent of depression and dark moods, despite all efforts to resist their plundering. Again, from Leave the Light On, and in the song, “Shillin’ for the Blues” you reveal a basic formula: Take a little slow resentment and an ounce of small regret, half a cup of wounded pride that has not faded yet; Add a pinch of passion and a double-shot of booze, When your self-respect is crashing, you can drink it up and cash in on the blues. — Yes, sometimes life stinks. We become exhausted and succumb to desolation. Occasionally, we need a break from all the well-intended, sensible, good advice we receive from others and the two-bit contemporary psychology readily available through the media and the internet. All that advice can be helpful, but not until you’re ready to hear it and use it. Sometimes, you need to cry or hide away, to ponder and reflect, before you’re able to try again.

When our son was in prison a few years ago, a difficult and soul-searching period, my husband and I attended your concert in Asheville, sitting on one of the Grey Eagle’s well-worn couches. You played a variety of tunes, from funny and self-deprecating, to dolefully blue to upbeat, to daring, to philosophical and musing. During the last two songs (and I don’t remember which), I lost control of my emotions and sobbed, tears streaming down my cheeks, right there in front of you. I was embarrassed and hoped you hadn’t noticed. I’m glad you touched those nerves though. It helps to feel the pain. I figure it’s part of getting through it.

It was my eclectically-a-tuned, audiophile husband who introduced you to me almost forty years ago, while we were dating (I, too, am growing older). He’d had some of your earlier recordings. I listened, liked what I heard, and purchased many of your newer releases over the years. I can’t count how many times we’ve seen you. Several times in Asheville and Charlotte, once in Johnson City, and before we moved south from the D.C. area, at the Birchmere in Alexandria, the Barns of Wolftrap, and the Ramshead Tavern. Your performances and songs will always be fresh to me.

Fresh and maybe a little chilling, as in the song, “No Love Today” from the album Drive You Home Again (Hightone Records, 1999): I got ba-na-na, watermelon, peaches by the pound, Sweet corn, mirleton, mo’ better than in town, I got okra, enough to choke ya, beans of every kind, If hungry is what’s eating you, I’ll sell you peace of mind, But this ain’t what you came to hear me say, And I hate to disappoint you, But I got no love today . . . Not a welcome refrain, if you’re hurting, but there’s also the heartening reminder, put simply: In the end no one will sell you what you need, You can’t buy it off the shelf, You got to grow it from the seed. Most of us have heard some version of that before, but somehow it comes home to roost -it’s more palpable, tender and evocative when you sing and play it (further intensified by your musical accompaniment, especially the bleating heartfelt saxophone played by John Mills).

Your latest CD, Call Me Lucky (Signature Sounds, 2018) is one of your most reflective. Partly, I figure that’s because you are older, and you’ve had more lifetime to consider. I played the tune “Down to the Sound” for my son (happily, no longer in prison). The tune resonated with me, and I thought he might also appreciate it: . . . it all comes down to the sound, Of something longing to be, It spins around in the lost and found, Til we learn to see . . .

I felt the words and music alight in me and lift me up: a recognition of self, a bold self-acceptance, acknowledgement of one’s better attributes, one’s flaws, with no apologies but with no undue pride either. “When it sounds like me, I hear my name, It seems like a picture slippin’ out of its frame, Takes most of the your wishes to make it come true, They’re mostly for free, but you pay for a few. Hearing this, I imagine glimpsing a reflection in a picture window and pausing, before discerning who or what I see. “Oh, that’s me,” I say. Then I walk on, humming, not stopping to fix my hair or worry over a blemish or stand up straighter.

I could go on reciting your lyrics and explaining why they mean so much to me, but I think you get the gist. Your music has made my life better. It has helped me through some tough places. I can shrug my shoulders more often now. not take myself so seriously, which is a good thing. Your music, grace, and humility are gifts to the world.

For those reading this who don’t know you: Listen to a Chris Smither song, then another. A whole album. Really listen. Smile, laugh, cry. Find some wisdom, while you’re at it. Time is ticking away. Chris Smither won’t be around forever, even if his music will. If he makes it to one hundred, he’s got twenty-two years to go. While you’re both here, check him out, and then tell him thanks. Better yet, do it in person.