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Life on the sex offender list

It happens about once a year, sometimes twice. Someone sees Gene's name and address on the North Carolina sex offender registry and anonymously mails all his neighbors, informing them that Gene was charged with indecent liberties with a minor.

Sometimes they take it a step further. One time he found an anonymous letter on his car windshield advising him that someone out there knows what he did. Gene, 28, and his parents had that one dusted for fingerprints. All they know for sure is that it was mailed in Charlotte. Another time, a customer complained to management where he worked about his sex offender status and he lost his job.

In Alfred's case, it was a neighbor who downloaded his mug shot and offender information off the registry and distributed it up and down the street. It hurt his wife the most, he said. After the charges of indecent liberties with a minor that happened, he says, after he got drunk at a party, she eventually forgave him and they pieced their marriage back together. Her girlfriends in the neighborhood never forgave her for that. After Alfred's neighbors found out about him, they simply stopped talking to both Alfred and his wife.

"We have neighbors who work at home or don't work and they are busybodies," he said. "They report everything. If I'm out in the yard planting something, they'll call my probation officer -- why, I don't know. She came out and asked where I planted bamboo and I said, 'Bamboo? How do you know I'm planting anything?' I swear to God, I live in a fishbowl."

Alfred pauses for a minute. "That's good," he adds before launching into a tirade about how unfair the registry is as well.

His is typical of the responses you get when you ask most sex offenders what they think of the sex offender registry. Creative Loafing recently sat in on sex offender group counseling sessions to find out what life is like for those whose names are on the registry. When Dr. William Tyson put that question to two groups of sex offenders he counsels, a heated debate broke out both times. There were two camps -- those who resent the fact that they have to register at all, and those who defend the registry, even though they'd make changes to how it works.

For a convicted sex offender who genuinely wants to go straight, they say, the registry can be a powerful tool. If your whole neighborhood, your family, your co-workers and your friends know you're on it, it increases the number of people keeping an eye on you and makes it harder to re-offend -- or to put yourself in a position where you will be tempted to.

"Your true friends aren't the ones who are in denial, the ones who say, 'He's a good guy, he didn't do it,'" says one sex offender. "Your friends are the ones who say, 'Maybe you shouldn't go to that party because there will be kids there.'"

One sex offender, who is struggling with an attraction to young boys, recently asked Tyson if he could come to counseling sessions more often, at least for awhile, because he's been having a particularly tough time lately. In both sessions, the man went out of his way to remind CL that his neighbors were unaware of his offender status because we had inadvertently left his zip code off the list the last two times we printed the sex offender registry.

Being on the registry can actually help protect sex offenders from being falsely accused, its defenders say. If it's discovered that some guy is giving out candy to kids at the park down the street and touching them inappropriately, neighbors who have been keeping an eye on the sex offender on their street can steer police away from him as a suspect because they recognize him on sight.

Still, living openly as a registered sex offender, in full compliance with the law, is a tremendous mental and emotional challenge for most of those on the registry, so much so that Tyson's sessions are as much a support group to help the men cope with day to day life as they are a tool for their recovery. When their neighbors get fliers about their crimes, in most cases Tyson and their case managers encourage sex offenders to put out a mailing of their own to acknowledge their sex offender status, let people know they've been consistently seeking treatment, and pass on the numbers of their therapist and probation officer in case their neighbors want to call with questions or to report inappropriate actions.

Several sex offenders said being open with their neighbors about their status has helped diffuse tense situations and even resulted in a cordial reception into the neighborhood. Others who have taken the initiative to discuss their history with neighbors and employers haven't been so lucky. They've lost jobs or been kicked out of their apartments.

Tyson reminds both groups that no one has the right to force them out of their homes, and that they need to stand up for their rights if they want things to change, even if it means going to court.

Those in Tyson's groups who oppose the registry requirement counter that sex offenders who have served their jail sentences and paid their debt to society wouldn't have to fear being kicked out of their apartments if they weren't forced to register. It's unfair, they say, that they have to register but murderers and other violent criminals don't.

Tyson jumped in to remind them that there is a fundamental difference between the crimes they have committed and other crimes, even murder. The registry is necessary, he said, because sex offenders rely on a unique kind of deception and secrecy to plan and execute their crimes that is rarely an element in other criminal acts.

But Tyson has some of the same gripes with the registry as the sex offenders he counsels. One of its weaknesses, they say, is that it doesn't tell the whole story and may even provide the public with a false sense of security. The list would be more helpful if it included additional information, like whether an individual offender is regularly attending treatment and complying with the terms of his parole or probation.

Sex offenders who are on the list and keep their addresses up to date are usually the ones you have to worry the least about, they say. It's those whose addresses are listed as "unknown" and who have failed to register or are out of compliance with their probation that the public should worry about the most.

Because of the way the registry works, it's entirely possible that a neighborhood might focus on the registered sex offender they know about while letting their guard down around another neighbor who, unknown to them, was supposed to register in another state but lives here under an assumed name.

That's actually not unusual, says Tyson. No one knows exactly how many sex offenders "go underground" rather than register, but a sort of underground support system does exist that helps these people change their identities.

Some of the sex offenders whom the courts refer to Tyson after they're convicted go by more than one name on their identity documents, he said, which makes him wonder who they really are and what they did elsewhere.

Further complicating matters, said Tyson, is the fact that those who commit sex crimes and prosecutors are increasingly using the registry as a bargaining chip in plea bargains in which the offender agrees to plea to other felony crimes that don't qualify them for the registry.

The few studies that have been done on re-offense rates for sex offenders show that 13 to 19 percent of child molesters are convicted a second time. For rapists, the re-offense rate is 19 to 23 percent. The problem with all of the studies to date, says Tyson, is that they only track what happens in the cases of those who serve prison time and don't take into account whether an offender has received treatment or what kind of treatment he got.

Of the 2,000 sex offenders Tyson has treated over the last 20 years, only 30 to 40 percent have spent time in prison for their crimes. About 80 percent of those referred to him by the courts complete the treatment program and of those, the known re-offense rate, which he tracks, is less than one percent. Among the 20 percent who don't complete the program, the known re-offense rate is 15 percent.

"There is a small core of sex offenders that are responsible for a majority of offenses," said Tyson.

Does that mean sex offenders can be cured? "No," said Tyson. He believes sex offenders can manage and control their tendencies to offend in much the same way an alcoholic learns to recognize the triggers that lead to a drinking binge and learns to avoid them. But an alcoholic is still an alcoholic, whether he or she ever takes a drink again.

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