Monthly Archives: June 2014

Who Are Those “Sex Offenders” and Why Should You Care?

When you read or hear someone say the two chilling words “sex offender”, the dark images that immediately come to mind for most people are those of deeply disturbed and dangerous rapists and pedophiles who, driven by sick and poorly controlled urges, seek to do unspeakable things to innocent women and little children.

Make no mistake, there are such people in the world, and the crimes committed by these people can be horrible, evil, depraved acts that can devastate their victims and their victims’ loved ones. One need only think of the excellent movie “A Time To Kill” (based on the John Grisham novel), starring Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson, in order to understand the kind of crimes that come to mind when one thinks of the word “sex offender”.

However, no matter how many times you turn on your tv and observe someone like Nancy Grace getting on her ratings-driven soapbox, peddling out for eager public consumption the very worst of the worst crimes perpetrated across the country, people rarely seem to recognize that the crime stories used by Ms. Grace and those like her have been carefully selected from the thousands and thousands of cases out there, specifically for their shock value.  If it elicits a deep emotional reaction (rage, disgust, fear, distrust of government), it gets on the show, and it gets written about in popular media, and it gets circulated throughout social media.  Naturally, some people start thinking that there’s a pedophile on every street corner, just looking to snatch your kid away and drive off with him/her in the back of his beat up van.

After years and years of seeing and hearing about the shocking and depraved acts showcased by Nancy Grace and her ilk, popular opinion begins to shift, and the shift then encourages lawmakers to pass strict laws to show the public how harshly these crimes will be dealt with in their states.  However, despite the noble and righteous intent behind such laws, the devil can usually be found lurking in the details.

For example, in Texas, if an immature, socially awkward 20 or 21 year old male, who has never really had much in common with girls his own age, hangs around with people younger and more on his own level intellectually and socially, a recipe for disaster is in the works, and nobody sees it coming.   Our hypothetical guy meets a girl at a party, and they like each other.  He’s not used to actually having a female give him the time of day, let alone be attracted to him.  Maybe he knows her age, maybe he doesn’t.  All he sees is a physically mature, sexually developed female liking him!  Maybe there is alcohol involved, maybe not.  Maybe she has years of sexual experience already, maybe not.  Nonetheless, at some point, they end up having sex, consensual sex.

Under Texas law, there is absolutely no distinction between the title of the crime that the above scenario involves and the crime committed by a pedophile who rapes a 5 year old.

No kidding!  Both crimes are called “Aggravated Sexual Assault of A Child”

Here’s the “logic” behind why such an absurd scenario exists…

STEP ONE:     Under Texas law, if you are under 17, you are defined as a “child”.

STEP TWO:  Under Texas law, a “child” cannot give consent to sex as we commonly understand the term, no matter what the facts may be, nor can such a child give consent to any other kind of sexual contact. No exceptions.

STEP THREE:  Under Texas law, penetration without “consent” equals “aggravated”.

So, by playing loosey goosey with the word “child” and “consent”, the legislature has created a scenario where two people are similarly stigmatized, for the rest of their lives.

The pedophile who rapes a child is properly labeled as a registered sex offender, for life. Such a pedophile is likely going to be in for a very long prison sentence and will experience difficulty making parole.  Meanwhile our awkward and immature 20 year old may be fortunate enough to get probation and avoid prison, depending on how hard the girl’s parents push the prosecutor, the quality of legal representation, the county in which this “horrible” thing occurred, among other factors.  However, this young man will now be branded as a registered sex offender for the rest of his life.  No exceptions.

I have seen the popular websites that display a map with red dots or other indicators of where all the registered sex offenders reside.  Such sites are very popular among parents of young children.  Unfortunately, one cannot tell from looking at these maps which of the red dots is a person who molested a young child, and which of these red dots involved conduct that is far less serious.  Moreover, even if the website has actually taken the time to list the title of the offense for which the person was convicted, it is virtually impossible to discern much else, because, as I have described above, the titles of the offenses can be inherently misleading.

As a parole lawyer in Texas, I have represented many men who went off to prison and then faced the struggle to make parole, all because of a past sexual attraction that resulted in the sort of thing that sexual attraction sometimes causes, with a person who may or may not have sought out the sexual encounter in the first place.  Sadly, such a man will carry a stigmatizing label for life, and every aspect of their future is affected, including housing, education, employment, relationship opportunities, etc.

I know that it’s asking too much of most people to keep an open mind when it comes to “sex offenders”, which is why the law MUST change in this important regard.

Thousands of people in Texas are given the stigmatizing label “sex offender” for life who are not pedophiles or rapists.

Yet, the media makes a lot of money off the fear of the public, and nothing stirs up a community’s fears quite like stories about rape and child molestation.  Unfortunately, we have a justice system in which broad definitions of sexual assaults allow for these crimes to come in so many different varieties.  Often, the end result, the label of “sex offender” becomes an enormous blanket of stigmatization that stays with every single person without any regard whatsover to reality.

Prosecutors know that a person who sits in a courtroom, in front of a jury, accused of a sex crime, any sex crime, will almost certainly be presumed guilty, not innocent.   In an important and noble effort to punish sexual deviants who prey upon children, Texas now has a system in place that inflicts brutal punishment on thousands of people each year who are not pedophiles and may not even have any abnormal or dangerous thoughts or feelings. Those brutal punishments, including all of the long term consequences of these convictions, are often so punitive that the person convicted suffers sentences that last a lifetime and exact a huge price on society in unintended and far-reaching ways.

Let’s start out with the first problem; what is a “child”  I ask this question because Texas law does not characterize “child” in a manner consistent with the way almost everyone understands the term “child molestation”.  A person is legally a child until his or her 17th birthday.  Unfortunately, in many home and social environments, teens over the age of 12 or 13 are already quite sexually active.  Moreover, many sexually active teens are not well supervised by parents; either because of a lack of parenting skill or dedication, the inability to be around the teens more often due to work responsibilities, or simply not caring enough to be a parent.  In far too many instances, these unsupervised teens are engaging in sexual activities, and when the person with whom they have sex is over 17, it becomes a recipe for disaster.

 

Are Texans More Evil, Ruthless, Savage, Deceitful, Amoral, Etc. Than Anywhere Else In The World?

I chose the title for this blog post for one very specific reason; most Texans I have known over the years are very proud to be from Texas, or at least proud that they “got here as fast as they could”, as the t-shirts and bumper stickers proclaim.  Accordingly, all of the proud Texans out there need to honestly ask themselves the question asked by the title of this post.

There is a simple reason I believe we all must ask the above question, including every single voter, every politician, every judge, every prosecutor, every probation officer, and even every single police officer who is out there looking to make another arrest and put another person in jail or prison…..

Either we have one of the very worst, evil, and depraved populations on the planet, living right here in the Lone Star State, or, we have perhaps the most punitive combination of laws, courts, DAs, and prison systems in the entire world.  I’m sure you can guess which of the two explanations seems more likely to me.

Yesterday’s post at the blog Grits For Breakfast helps to illuminate just how out of whack Texas’ criminal justice system really is.  The Grits post references a study done by The Prison Policy Institute that demonstrates how, if Texas were a nation, it would have the world’s fifth highest percentage of its citizens behind bars.  Moreover, the only four places that outpace Texas in imprisonment are not other countries around the globe.  Instead, they are our neighbors.  We need only look eastward, to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia, or to the north, towards Oklahoma.  However, since Texas is a pretty big state, with approximately 30 million inhabitants, our prison population is, according to The Prison Policy Institute, bigger than the prison population of Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Oklahoma combined.

The introduction to the chart at The Prison Policy Institute, depicting the results of the study, pretty much sums up the logical conclusion of the study:

“The state of Louisiana is often called out for having the highest incarceration rate in the world. But in the global context, how far behind are the other 49 states, really? This report finds that the disturbing answer is “Not very far.”

What was so shocking to me wasn’t that Texas is among the most punitive places around. After all, the “tough on crime” politicians, district attorneys, and judges (all of whom are elected in political elections) love to show the voting public how much they will make those god-awful lawbreakers suffer, when given the chance.  Instead, what really stunned me about the study was the difference in the incarceration rates between the United States and the rest of the world. It’s jaw dropping, considering how so many of the people in our country like to believe in the moral superiority of the United States.

Here’s a link to the chart:

http://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/

As a Texas parole attorney, I’ve now met and interviewed close to one thousand inmates in the Texas prison system. All were convicted of felonies under Texas law.  One of the first things that I was really surprised to find when I first began interviewing inmates years ago was that most of the people I interviewed just seemed like pretty normal people who had made some bad choices, or in some cases, really bad choices.  True, some of these people and some of their bad choices had to be punished, no question about it.  Other situations honestly did not seem like situations where punishment of any sort seemed logical or appropriate.  Or, in those cases where some kind of penalty was appropriate, many of these cases called for simple fines or documented warnings.

Perhaps we need to re-think many of our basic definitions of what crime really is and how it ought to be punished.  Perhaps it is even more important that we stop ignoring that the politicians, prosecutors, and judges have such sweeping punishment powers.  It does not seem, unfortunately, that getting elected in popular elections mixes very well with insightful, informed leadership on how best to deal with improper behavior.  Being seen as “soft on crime” is a political risk no intelligent politician, including the politicians on the judicial benches of Texas, will ever take.

If no meaningful reforms are justified, as many claim, and people are going to continue believing that our current criminal justice system is fair, then one of the following two conclusions must be true;

1)   According to data taken from around the planet, Texans are, on average, more awful, more savage, more dangerous, more dishonest, etc. etc. than just about anywhere else.

OR

2) Texas (and too many other places in the “Land of the Free”) treats other people more awfully than just about anywhere else.

 

The Austin Parole Board Office Is Open For Business

For many years, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has consisted of 6 Board Office locations in Texas; Amarillo, Angleton, Gatesville, Huntsville, Palestine, and San Antonio. A few months ago, a 7th Board Office was created, and Austin was the location selected. I have been meaning to blog about this development for a while now, and since I have now had the opportunity to advocate to the voters in Austin on a few occasions, I am finally in a little better position to write this post.

About 6 months ago, I had heard that the Board was going to add 2 new Parole Commissioners, but it was not completely clear at the time, from what I had heard anyway,whether these new commissioners would be based in one of the six existing Board Offices, essentially filling in for voters in all 6 offices during periods when a voter was on vacation or when the backlog of files warranted, or whether the Board would create a seventh Board Office.

In approximately March, I learned that the decision had been made to create the Austin Board Office of The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.  I quickly learned that the Board Member for that newly created office would be Rissie Owens, the Head of Parole Board, with the two parole commissioners assigned to work in the Austin office as Mr. Elvis Hightower and Mr. Troy Fox, two very experienced and knowledgeable existing Parole Commissioners from the Gatesville Board Office.  It made perfect sense to select Mr. Fox and Mr. Hightower, especially considering the numerous other duties Ms. Owens must perform on a regular basis.

In order for Mr. Fox and Mr. Hightower to move to the new Board office in Austin, the Board had to name two new Parole Commissioners and assign them to the Gatesville Board Office, and then quickly train them on a host of matters.  The Board named LeeAnn Eck-Massingill and Roel Tejada as the new commissioners in Gatesville, and they are now working under David Gutierrez, who has now been a Board Member for approximately five years.  I have already had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Tejada on one ocassion, and I look forward to the opportunity to speak with Ms. Eck-Massingill in the near future.

Although the new Austin Parole office has a relatively small number of prison units assigned to it, it is my understanding that this office is also responsible for voting a certain class of cases that may be drawn from any of the other regions in the state.  Previously, voters from other places had to periodically travel to Austin in order to vote those cases. Based on what I have already observed, it can be safely assumed that the Austin Parole team is now in full gear and is staying quite busy.

Although the addition of a seventh board office was likely an administrative decision made to reduce travel costs and modestly reduce the workload for those voters who had to regularly travel, the hidden benefit to inmates and their families is the most exciting aspect of the change, because the addition of 2 more voters may just mean that overall, voters, at least in some places, may have slightly more time to spend looking at a parole file.  In my opinion,  that’s a very good thing indeed!  Now, if the Board could do something about Austin traffic…