My 33-year-old son, Adam, is a registered sex offender in the state of Illinois. Because of this, our entire family exists in the netherworld of the registry. The federal laws mandating a publicly available sex-offender registry were passed in the mid-1990s with the purpose of notifying communities about “sexually violent predators” living in their neighborhoods. But my son is not violent nor is he a predator. My son was convicted of a single, non-violent misdemeanor. He was never in trouble before, and he’s never been in trouble since. There are around 900,000 people in the U.S. on the registry, and you don’t reach such numbers by listing only those who are truly dangerous. My son, like the vast majority of the people on the registry, presents no threat to society.
I am 67 years old and my husband is 69. We are both retired. I was a medical receptionist, and my husband handled accounts for a recycling company. I am devoting the rest of my life to reforming the registry, not just because I hope that, before I die, our family can live like normal people again. But because the registry does not protect your family. The registry actually makes your family less safe. It turns harmless people who could be productive citizens into outcasts. It wastes valuable law-enforcement resources monitoring and punishing people—and their families—who are at almost no risk of reoffending. And it perpetuates the false and debilitating fear that everyone, especially children, is under threat from a monstrous class of people who are beyond redemption.
When Adam was a toddler, he was diagnosed as having an intellectual and developmental disability (the updated term for “mental retardation”). Many clinicians over the years have confirmed that he will never have the ability to care for himself. My son has the intellectual capacity of a 10-year-old—one who is guileless, naïve, and easily manipulated.
Adam has to be reminded to brush his teeth, shower, and shave. He finally stopped wetting the bed when he was 16. He doesn’t understand sex and he dislikes being touched, hugged, or kissed. We raised him, and our older daughter, in a quiet suburban neighborhood. Adam went to the local schools where he was in special-education classes. He was not able to receive a high school diploma, but he earned a certificate of attendance.
He had two great joys in his life: Special Olympics and scuba diving. He has a wall full of medals from the Special Olympics where he competed in softball, swimming, and weightlifting. We discovered an organization called Diveheart, which teaches diving to people with disabilities. Adam so thrived there that he was able to help other disabled divers. He also found employment at a local restaurant, clearing tables and cleaning the restroom. He was so proud that he had a job and a paycheck.
During my son’s teen years, a couple in the neighborhood became foster parents to a boy a few years younger than my son, whom I’ll call Reuben. Reuben came from a shattered family, one filled with sexual and other abuse. We embraced Reuben, a child dealing with many psychological and behavioral problems, like one of our own. We had him to our house often and took him on camping trips. By the time Adam and Reuben entered their twenties, the neighbors had adopted Reuben and were also caring for his young niece.
But unbeknownst to us, Reuben—now a young adult—was re-enacting the sexual abuse he had been subjected to as a boy, and was molesting both my son and his niece. My heart breaks for this little girl, who has endured so much trauma. One day, Reuben told my son that it would fun if Adam unzipped his pants and exposed himself to the 5-year-old girl. Adam did. He had no understanding of what he had done, nor did he touch her.
The niece told Reuben’s adoptive parents what had happened, and they called the police. Both Adam and Reuben were arrested. We were in despair for everyone involved. My husband and I emptied our savings accounts to pay for attorneys—money we had put aside for retirement and to provide for Adam after we were gone. We assumed that once the court understood that Adam himself had been victimized and that he was neither dangerous nor mentally competent, this nightmare would end. But Adam and Reuben were each charged with 19 felonies. A conviction on these counts would have put my son in prison for decades. We learned that such excessive charges are not unusual, and give prosecutors enormous leverage.
We fought for a year, but the state would not drop the charges against Adam. Eventually we were offered a deal: Adam would plead guilty to a single misdemeanor; be on probation for two years, during which he would have to wear an ankle monitor; and spend 10 years on the sex-offender registry. We couldn’t take the risk of a trial—we knew our son would not make it if he was sent to prison. In 2013, we accepted the deal. When Adam appeared before the judge, she was required to make sure my son voluntarily agreed to plead guilty and that he understood the consequences of doing so. But my son didn’t comprehend any of the questions the judge asked him. Adam’s lawyer stood next to him and told him what to say.
I have since learned that many non-violent people charged with sexual violations face the same forced choice. They can’t risk a trial, or afford a legal defense, so they take a bargain that puts them on the registry. According to a Human Rights Watch report, many juveniles are not even told that a condition of their plea will be to end up on the registry. Only later do they discover they have agreed to be punished, banished, and harassed, possibly for the rest of their lives.
The registry came about in the 1990s in response to a panic that led to a series of false beliefs. A few gut-churning cases of child abduction and murder by sexual predators sparked a national terror. What got lost amidst the fear was the fact that these kinds of horrifying crimes are exceedingly rare—according to a 2002 Department of Justice report, 99.8 percent of children declared missing are found alive. But massive publicity about the rare worst cases, and the creation of institutions to repeatedly warn people that their children were not safe, embedded the idea, one that persists to this day, that “stranger danger” is an ever-present threat. As the wars on crime and drugs resulted in harsh federal and state legislation, so too did the war on sex offenders.
A 1996 federal law created a national, public, sex-offender registry. But as with the wars on crime and drugs, which ended up sweeping up millions of harmless people, the definitions of what constituted a sexual offense that could land someone on the registry began to inflate beyond all sense.
Teenagers sexting have ended up on the registry. Older teens having consensual sex with younger teen romantic partners are on the registry. Although no one can determine exact figures, vast numbers of people on the registry are, or were, juveniles when they landed there.
Patty Wetterling experienced the worst agony a mother can face. In 1989, her 11-year-old son, Jacob, was biking home with his brother and a friend, when Jacob was abducted at gunpoint by a stranger. He was not seen again and his disappearance remained unsolved for nearly 30 years. Ultimately, a man suspected of other, similar crimes was apprehended and confessed to Jacob’s murder. After Jacob’s abduction, Wetterling became a fierce and effective advocate for victims of horrific crimes, and her work helped lead to the first federal laws on registering sex offenders.
But in an act of almost unimaginable bravery, in recent years, Wetterling has become an outspoken opponent of what the registry has become. She has criticized its expansion to include those who have committed lesser violations, the ever-harsher restrictions and humiliations that those on the registry endure, and the lack of opportunity for those who do not reoffend to return to society.
The sociologist Emily Horowitz, in her book Protecting Our Kids? How Sex Offender Laws are Failing Us, writes that the vast majority of people on the registry “are not predatory, repeat, or violent offenders.” It turns out that the vast majority of those on the registry are first-time offenders. Horowitz writes that “registered sex offenders are treated as a homogeneous group, all equally punished for the sake of protecting against an extremely tiny minority.”
For example, Georgia has more than 20,000 people on the registry, and Horowitz cites a study done there that found only about 5 percent of those people posed a likely threat, and concluded that 65 percent didn’t need any kind of monitoring. California has about 100,000 people on the registry, all of them subject to lifetime registration. But in a reform set for next year, the state will go to a three-tier system, allowing 90 percent of those on the registry to become eligible for eventual removal. As an article in the San Francisco Chronicle noted, “Local law enforcement agencies estimated that they spend two-thirds of the money intended for supervising sex offenders on paperwork for low-risk offenders.” As in Georgia, about 65 percent of the people on the California registry are on it for non-violent misdemeanors.
It’s no surprise that the public believes the worst about people on the registry. False and inflammatory assertions about those on the registry are proclaimed by powerful people across the political spectrum—and the media, for the most part, has failed to question this. Take the Supreme Court ruling by now-retired justice Anthony Kennedy in 2002 that declared there was a “frightening and high” recidivism rate of around 80 percent for sexual offenders. But this number came from a single magazine article, has been thoroughly debunked, and even the author of the original article has repudiated the statistic.
It may be hard to believe—I wouldn’t have believed it myself before my son got caught up in this system—but, as attorney David Feige wrote in the New York Times, numerous studies have shown that the recidivism rate for sex offenders is low: generally less than 5 percent, which is among the lowest rates of those convicted of any crime. Wetterling used to believe that people on the registry were incorrigibles with a compulsion to reoffend, and therefore the public must be able to monitor where they live, and that they deserve a life in the shadows. But, as she told Human Rights Watch for a report highly critical of the registry, she came to realize how wrong these beliefs were: “[T]he high recidivism rates I assumed to be true do not exist.”
Because of Adam’s conviction, we could no longer live in the neighborhood where we raised him and his sister, so we bought a one-bedroom condo, and eventually sold our house of 35 years. My husband sleeps on the couch, and I sleep on an air mattress in the walk-in closet. We let my son have the bed. He has lost so much that we had to let him have his own bed. For the two years he was on probation, he was terrified that his ankle monitor would go off. He was also required to stay inside from 6 pm to 6 am. Because Adam cannot be left alone, we all lived under this curfew.
Adam has been on the registry for seven years. He doesn’t have the capacity to understand what the registry means. He just knows that he can no longer participate in the activities he loves. His life is so restricted that he spends most of his days in our small apartment. He plays with fidget spinners, watches the robot vacuum clean the floor, and talks to Alexa and Google Assistant. He is severely depressed, and his language and social skills have drastically deteriorated.
We receive an annual check-in from the police. My son is always in compliance, but after one such visit at our building, the detectives went around knocking on the doors of other residents to tell them Adam was a registered sex offender. I know they were just doing their job. But why should it be their job to make the neighbors hate my family and be frightened of my harmless son?
Even when he gets off the registry, the punishments will continue. For example, Adam will be banned from public parks for life—if he were to enter one, he could be subject to incarceration. It is a small indignity, but many Special Olympic events take place in parks. He will never be able to participate in them again. There is no justifiable reason for this except that the system is about stripping his humanity, not returning him to society. Being on the registry is a form of civil death.
Residency laws that put restrictions on living near a school or a park mean vast swaths of housing in many states are off-limits to people on the registry. Emily Horowitz, the sociologist, writes of a man on the registry who was not able to return to his home because it was near a drainage ditch—law enforcement concluded children might play there.
My daughter, her husband and 6-year-old son live in Florida. Two years ago, she gave birth to a child who died hours later. My husband could not accompany me to comfort her because we cannot take Adam with us to Florida. The sex-offender rules there are among the harshest in the country. If Adam visited his sister for more than a few days, he would be required to register as a sex offender in Florida. This would mean that even after he completes his term on the registry in Illinois, he would remain on the Florida registry for life. My daughter has said she will take care of her brother after my husband and I are gone. But bringing him to Florida could present insurmountable difficulties for her family.
These restrictions don’t make the public safer; they likely make the public less safe. The Department of Justice, in a 2015 report, acknowledged this. “Research has demonstrated that residence restrictions do not decrease and are not a deterrent for sexual recidivism. In addition, research has shown no significant decreases in sex crime rates following the implementation of residence restrictions.” Additionally, the report asserted, “the research suggests that residence restrictions may actually increase offender risk by undermining offender stability and the ability of the offender to obtain housing, work, and family support. There is nothing to suggest this policy should be used at this time.” And yet, this policy has been used for decades.
My husband and I have both been diagnosed with multiple mental and physical disorders as a result of our ordeal. I have been medicated for anxiety, depression, and PTSD. But I decided I couldn’t just give up. In 2015, I and other parents of disabled children who are on the registry or in prison started a non-profit, Legal Reform for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. We support other families, and are engaged in advocacy to change the laws and policies that trapped our kids.
Our group just had a major victory in Virginia. In July, three bills became law that aimed at keeping people like Adam out of the criminal-justice system. One gives judges the option to defer or dismiss a case if the defendant’s disability played a substantial role in the criminal conduct. This should be a model for the entire country. If such a law had been in place in Illinois, it might have saved our family.
I am now seeking a pardon for my son from the governor. I’m doing it myself because we’ve run out of money for lawyers. I know getting it would be a miracle, but my family needs one. I don’t know how my daughter will be able to care for Adam after we die. But until we do, all we want is a chance to live like normal people again.
Carol Nesteikis is a co-founder of Legal Reform for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, LRIDD.