Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Who are sex offenders?

By Amy Reinink
The Gainesville Sun - June 14, 2005

State probation officers Michelle Plourde and Alan R. Katz leave the Gainesville residence of a registered sex offender after a contact interview heir offenses range from rape with a deadly weapon to a 24-year-old man having consensual sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend.

Among Alachua County's 330 registered sex offenders, nearly every offense is represented. The offenders vary greatly in age, include both women and men, and they live almost everywhere.

There's a 57-year-old sexual predator in northeast Gainesville who said he once fled the state to escape his second sex-offense charge.

In southwest Gainesville, a 60-year-old offender molested his girlfriend's daughter, and says he's still with the same girlfriend.

And, in Micanopy, there's a 40-year-old offender who was found guilty of lewd or lascivious molestation of a victim between the ages of 12 and 15.

Experts who deal with sex offenders - including counselors, probation officers and prosecutors - acknowledge that there's a range of severity in sex offenses, and say that not all offenders are violent predators.

But, several area sex offenders interviewed said that, to the general public, there is no such thing as an "excusable" sexual offense or a sexual predator worthy of sympathy. A sexual offender or predator is someone to be feared and vilified, they say, no matter what their explanation might be.

"I understand everyone's fears," said Bill, 37, an Alachua County sex offender who served about two years in prison for 66 counts of child pornography. "There are some dangerous people out there. I've been in jail with them, in therapy with them.

"But I'd say 90 percent of the (sex offenders) I've met are just normal people who made a bad decision. They got high, they got drunk and they made the wrong choice. They're trying to start their lives over again, but how can there be rehabilitation when it's like this?

"People need to either accept us as part of society or do away with us altogether."

Different cases
Overwhelmingly, Alachua County's sex offenders are older white men, but there are many on the registry who don't fit that description.

Jason Brown, 24, looks more like a college student than a child molester on probation.

He's served four years in prison and spent four and a half years on probation after being charged as an adult for molesting an 8-year-old girl.

Brown said there's more to his story than the offense implies. Brown was 13 when he molested the girl while baby-sitting her, an offense that followed years of being abused himself, he said.

Brown said he understands the fear that's seized Floridians in the wake of the deaths of Jessica Lunsford, 9, and Sarah Lunde, 13, who were both killed earlier this year, allegedly by registered sex offenders. But he - along with some experts who deal with sex offenders - say those cases are the exception, not the rule.

"I do not work with anyone who's killed a victim," said Ellen Young, a licensed clinical social worker for the ITM Group in Gainesville, who's done inpatient and outpatient counseling for sex offenders in the region since the 1980s. "The media is portraying all sex offenders as homicidal maniacs, and that's just not the reality."

Jeanne Singer, chief assistant state attorney for the six-county judicial circuit that includes Alachua County, said while the district has seen violent sex offenses, those cases are few and far between.

"I think you're going to find that the most violent offenders are serving life sentences," Singer said. "If you do see any out in the community, on supervision, it's because they've done 30 years (in prison) already."

Even among nonviolent offenders, the charges can vary.

"We see offenders whose victims were adults and offenders whose victims were minors, familial offenses and nonfamilial offenses," said Michelle Plourde, a state probation officer who works in Gainesville. "So yeah, I guess we see just about everything."

Finding homes, jobs
Though state data shows that the majority of Alachua County's sex offenders cluster in poor neighborhoods in northeast Gainesville and in rural areas in outlying parts of the county, Alan R. Katz, a state probation officer who works in Gainesville, said they live almost everywhere.

"Every case is unique," Katz said. "You normally think of them living in poorer areas, but really, there's not one socioeconomic status to group them in, and there are really no statistics that link them together."
Sex offenders convicted today are not allowed to live within 1,000 feet of a church, a day care center, a park, a playground, a school or a school bus stop while they're on probation.

Bill, 37, whose 66 child pornography charges landed him on the sex offender registry, said he chose his remote location in Alachua County for a reason.

"I don't want to draw any attention to myself," Bill said. "I'm terrified all the time. My girlfriend lives in constant fear. With everything that's going on, I just wonder, if people found out, what would they do? I don't want to hurt anyone. I just want a quiet little existence."

Brown said when he was still living in his hometown in Madison County, he had to move six times in one year, being approved by probation officers based on distance from schools and bus stops and then denied based on new information. "If a swing set in someone's backyard is large enough, it can qualify as a playground, and that means I can't live there," Brown said.

Financial troubles from sparse job options limit where offenders can live, too.

"I can barely make a living," Bill said. "Even manual labor jobs, half of them will not even consider me. As soon as I have to state my charge, it's over. I had a temp service turn me away in Gainesville. I'm working for family now. If not for that, I can't see how I could live at all."

Brown is a cook at a restaurant. He moved to Gainesville about a year and a half ago, when the manager of the restaurant where he worked in Madison County, who knew about the sex charge, was transferred to a Gainesville restaurant in the same national chain and asked Brown if he wanted to move for a higher-paying job.

But Brown said he has been declined for several other jobs based on his sex offense, even after employers knew about and OK'd a felony on his record. He once spent six months packing watermelons because he couldn't find any other job.

"The felony part really doesn't give you any kind of hindrance, but the sex offender part?" Brown said. "When I go on an interview, I wait and see if I'm hired, wait until they give me my schedule, and then say, 'Wait, by the way, that felony I have . . .' Then I know if I'm not hired, it's simply because I'm a sex offender. It's not my qualifications or anything like that - it's simply because I'm a sex offender. And I can deal with that. If they don't want to give me a chance, fine."

The stigma
Ricky, 52, is off probation now, after years in prison and supervision following his 1987 offense - molesting his two young children and three of his brother-in-law's kids.

His wife of nine years said she quickly learned to look beyond her husband's past.
"It was hard," she said, "but I looked at his heart."

Still, almost 20 years after his offense, in a new life that Ricky says leaves no chance for re-offending, the social stigma hangs with him, and he said very few people are willing to look beyond his past the way his wife was. "People need to realize you made a mistake," Ricky said. "I've done my time. I regret the things I've done wrong. I learned from my mistake. I want to live again."

No matter what the charge, offenders say, the stigma of being a sex offender stretches to every aspect of a person's life. And even when probation is through, they say the punishment never ends.

"Sex offenders are not another race of creatures," Bill said. "Offenders are people with goals and dreams like everyone else. But the way we're treated, they might as well build an island and lock us all in on it."
Brown said he knows his case is bad, and said he deeply regrets the offense. But he said when he's able to fully explain the situation - that he was abused growing up, that he was young himself when he committed the crime - they usually don't judge him too harshly.

He said though he wishes everyone would judge sex offenders based on their individual circumstances rather than their charges, he understands the other side, too.

"Mine isn't as bad as some," Brown said. "But I don't know that they can really look at it that way. I want my little sister to be safe, and maybe this is the way it has to be. So if I have to suffer for it, you know, whatever."

Amy Reinink can be reached at (352) 374-5088 or reinina@gvillesun.com.

No comments: