Awarded Best Student Magazine in the Country by the Society of Professional Journalists in 2021!

But It’s You

If you were a potential employer or landlord, this is what you would learn about John Tejada from a quick internet search: his age (40), his height (6’1”), his weight (260 lbs), his race (black), his eyes (brown), his address (in Hartford, Connecticut) how many scars he has (three: two on the knees, one on the ankle), his tattoos (the Superman logo on his right butt-cheek). You would also learn that he was convicted of sexual assault in the second degree in March 2014. This is information that John has to confirm or update every ninety days, when he gets his official letter in the mail. If he is late, state law enforcement will mark him “non-compliant” in bold, red type. You would find the headlines about John’s offense in tabloid-like papers like the Connecticut Post and the Cheshire Patch. You probably wouldn’t rent him an apartment or give him a job.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that John was born in Brooklyn (the posh part) to a dentist and a judge, that he went to one of New York’s top public high schools, and that he completed a computer science degree at Notre Dame, where he was a nationally-ranked fencer. After graduating, he worked in administrative positions at Merrill Lynch, Lord and Taylor, and ESPN. These were the kinds of jobs that required him to wear a suit every day, and he liked that. You might find out that he coached high school fencing, first in New Jersey, then in Fairfield, CT. Along the way, he got married, had a baby, won state coach-of-the-year four times, became depressed, started fighting with his wife, and began an intimate relationship with one of the senior girls on the team. You would, almost certainly, learn that she was seventeen. John says that she came onto him and that they never actually had sex. What the statute for second degree assault reflects is that meaningful consent is impossible between an adult and a minor before the law. John doesn’t deny it: “I was a coach, in a position of power, absolutely…I know I did something wrong. I absolutely did. I know I hurt her.”

It’s beside the point, but I like John. When he enters the Cedarhurst Café in New Haven, he is wearing a navy blue suit, a checkered shirt, a pocket square, and sunglasses perched atop his almost bald head. The suit surprises me: most of the people I’ve spoken with on the state sex-offender registry are unemployed, self-employed, or working at fast-food restaurants. He saunters up to the counter and orders the “pumpkin spiced chai whatever it is” that is advertised on the chalkboard outside, which, when he comes to join me at the high table by the window, he says tastes like “warm pumpkin milk.” We agree that there are worse things. John has a soft, slow voice, which starts self-conscious, but grows self-assured as he gets deeper into his story.

The offense occurred six years ago. The victim’s parents had discovered intimate texts with John on her cellphone and reported them to the school, which fired John as a coach. His then-wife, who had recently given birth to their second son, kicked him out, and he slept in cars, hotels, and at friends’ houses. His victim didn’t press charges until the end of 2013, when she was a freshman in college. According to John, she had a breakdown and her parents encouraged her to report him to law enforcement. He was arrested and sentenced to ten years with a suspended sentence after two, and ten years’ probation.

Once in jail, John was placed in the medical wing on suicide watch. Incarceration can be especially rough for those convicted of sex offenses, who he says are vilified within prisons more than any other group, but John weighed close to three hundred pounds and could bench 350, so nobody tried to fight him. After getting off suicide watch, he spent his time tutoring other inmates for the GED, and when he was released in 2016, he was looking forward to rebuilding his life.
But John had lost everything: his family, his job, his money, his car, his belongings. The first order of business was to buy clothes. His first set of probation stipulations prohibited him from going to a mall, or anywhere where teens congregate, so he stood around in his prison-discharge gym shorts, contemplating all the small ways life would look different now, before heading to a Banana Republic.

When he was released in 2016, John looking forward to rebuilding his life. But he had lost everything: his family, his job, his money, his car, his belongings.

Next on the list was housing. John says he was rejected from over a hundred apartments in Hartford—which isn’t unusual for individuals on the registry. State and federal housing subsidies explicitly deny eligibility to registered offenders. Private landlords are under no obligation to exclude people on the registry, but it doesn’t count as housing discrimination when they do. So John moved into a hotel. The Days Inn in Hartford is close enough to Bradley International Airport that he could hear the planes as they came and went. It was under construction at the time, which made the rooms cheaper. John describes it as the kind of place where kids would go after prom. He got to know the Indian family who owned it; they were friendly, and they would chat before he went out to the library in the mornings.

John arrived at the library at 9:25 a.m. so he could secure a computer when it opened at 9:30—the terms of his probation banned him from owning his own computer, and they required him to leave the library in the afternoons when school got out, because, like the mall, it was somewhere teens came to hang out. When he first got out of prison, the only children he was allowed to spend time with were his own. John says he applied to hundreds of jobs, and “a lot of people said no. Everybody said no. It was hell.” Eventually, somebody said yes, and he started working at a warehouse, preparing bulk food shipments to send to supermarkets. Then another yes, and he got a job with a local newspaper. He was promoted, he passed his polygraph, and his probation restrictions started to ease up. He found an apartment in Hartford through a sympathetic building manager who had served three years himself, and he moved out of the hotel. Things were looking up.

Then the paper fired him—journalism was so public and he was too much of a liability—and he was back to the job search. The offense would come up in different ways during interviews. Sometimes they would notice the gap in his work experience while he’d been incarcerated and would ask for an explanation. Sometimes they would inquire about a background check. Sometimes it was at the very end, when they asked if there was anything else they should know. “I got in trouble,” John would tell them. “A couple of years ago when I was running this fencing program I had an inappropriate relationship with a high school senior…it was a dark period of my life.”

At Voya Financial, a personal finance company, his interviewers had told him they didn’t think it would affect how he did the job, so they invited him back for an aptitude test. The HR person told him that he had gotten the first ten she had ever seen. He got an offer. “I was really excited,” he says, “I could wear suits again.” They did a background check, then sent him his paperwork. He set up his health insurance. Two weeks later, he got a call: they couldn’t hire him after all. “There’s no coming back from it,” he says, “You’re the monster.”

Two weeks later, he got a call: they couldn’t hire him after all. “There’s no coming back from it,” he says, “You’re the monster.”

Now, John’s sons—three and six—are growing up without him. The little one is built “like a brick house,” the kind of kid, he says, who could “take your lunch money by just looking at you.” The older one is sweet; he takes care of his brother. John hasn’t seen his mother—who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s—in nearly six years. His ex-wife isn’t speaking to him. Neither are most of his friends: only two had come to visit him in prison, and his social life didn’t get much better after his release. He was banned from fencing. And making new friends is almost impossible: you can’t make work friends when you’re unemployed, and probation prevents him from going to bars. He spends a lot of time at the sofa. He sometimes does two-a-day workouts at the gym. He calls it “killing the time.” He calls it “getting more and more depressed.” He calls it “a lonely, lonely thing.”

I ask John what he’s doing now, and he says he’s looking for work again. He was at a career fair today, then at an interview for a job at a furniture retail chain, Raymour & Flannigan. That explains the suit. He tells me about sneezing so hard that the shirt’s top button popped off. That had been embarrassing. He took off his necktie, because he thought it looked messy to wear a tie if the shirt wasn’t done up all the way. We leave the café together. It’s a beautiful day, sunny and cool. “I don’t want to say it’s not fair, because you did something and if you didn’t do what you did you wouldn’t have to ever deal with this,” he says, “But when is the punishment ending?”

In December 2017, the Connecticut Sentencing Commission—a non-partisan body comprised of activists, law enforcement, and local and state government officials—came out with a proposal on how the state might improve policy regarding people convicted of sex offenses. In 2015, they set out to investigate sentencing, risk assessment and registration requirements, as well as victim and survivor needs, making Connecticut among the first states to re-evaluate the registry (California and Oregon led the charge). Thomas Ullmann, who was New Haven’s chief public defender for thirty years, hopes that the state will take action soon to “change the landscape” of what sex offender laws look like around the nation.

The U.S. state sex offender registries weren’t created until 1994. At that time, they were supposed to be administrative rather than punitive, and only law enforcement officials were able to see them—a far cry from the publicly available online sites we have now.

The 1994 Jacob Wetterling Act, which mandated the creation of those first registries, was named after an eleven-year-old boy who was abducted and murdered in his Minnesota hometown. His mother, Patty Wetterling, ardently lobbied, first in Minnesota and then in D.C., for the creation of private registries that would allow law enforcement to keep track of people they deemed “high risk.”

But in the nearly twenty-five years that have elapsed since then, the laws that govern registration of those convicted of sex crimes has gotten much more punitive than she had imagined. Congress has since passed a series of laws, all of them named for young children who were abused and murdered in tragic abduction cases, and precipitated by the activism of their parents, that have increased the number of years individuals stay on sex offender registry, broadens the scope of the information listed, and have made those registries public.

It’s not obvious why a sex offender registry became the goal of lobbyists outraged by these incidents of child abduction. What is clear is that activists and lawmakers alike seized onto that outrage—and a national preoccupation with sex crimes that Hartford public defender Tejas Bhatt calls a “mass hysteria phenomenon”—that led to the almost unilateral success of these lobbying efforts. Those working to eliminate or reduce the sex offender registry often point to the fact that the U.S. does not have registries for most other kinds of crimes: “Do we have a registry of people who rob stores?” Bhatt, asks, rhetorically, “Maybe that would be useful for store-owners.” The U.S. doesn’t have public registries for people convicted of murder, non-sexual assault, or extortion, either. Before registration requirements, people convicted of sex offenses were typically sentenced for their crimes, served time in prison or jail, and faced parole restrictions for a period after their release. They had the same obstacles to community integration that face every felon released from U.S. prison. But they did not have their personal information—including their address and photograph—published on a public list.

They had the same obstacles to community integration that face every felon released from U.S. prison. But they did not have their personal information—including their address and photograph—published on a public list.

Although the registration laws were prompted by public outcry in response to rare, horrific cases of child abduction, they apply to perpetrators of a wide range of sex crimes. New Haven public defender Thomas Ullmann points out the discrepancy between the nature of the stranger-danger offenses that informed the registry laws and the assaults by acquaintances that are so much more prevalent. According to RAINN, the largest anti-sexual-assault organization in the U.S., 93 percent of victims in juvenile sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement know their perpetrators; for adults, seven out of ten reported rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. Ullmann says that “most people think the registry is predicated on public safety, but it’s actually counterproductive to public safety,” because it prevents offenders from getting jobs, pulls them out of housing, and “pushes them to other kinds of crime.”

Even Patty Wetterling has become a vocal critic. “We’ve caught a lot of people in the net who could have been helped,” she told City Pages in 2013. “We’ve been elevating sex offender registration and community notification and punishment for twenty-some years, and a wise and prudent thing would be to take a look at what’s working. Instead we let our anger drive us.”

Where does misperception of public safety come from? Ira Ellman, a professor of psychology and law at UC Berkeley’s Law School and Arizona State University, partially chalks it up to a false statistic that Justice Anthony Kennedy cited in a landmark 2003 Supreme Court ruling, which was then repeated in decisions of over a hundred lower courts. Kennedy called recidivism rates for former offenders “frightening and high.” The statistic that he cited, 80 percent, would indeed be frightening and high—if it was true. Ellman traces it back to a single article in Psychology Today, one that is contradicted by state-wide re-offense studies that show sex-crime recidivism rates that hover between 2 and 5 percent. Effectiveness studies in Washington, New Jersey, and New York conclude that public notification has no meaningful impact on rates of recidivism. A 2012 study concluded that only 2.7 percent of men offended a second time after their release from Connecticut prison.

The Sentencing Commission’s interim report considers the claim that “these laws may not prevent recidivism or sexual violence and, in fact, may do more harm than good.” The registry does little to curtail sex crimes committed by individuals that have not yet been registered—rather than preventing these offenses, the system allocates resources towards punishing former offenders. The Sentencing Commission’s draft proposal suggests a switchover from an offense-based registry to a risk-based one. As Ullmann explains it, the current registry system means that at the point of conviction, individuals end up on the registry for either ten years or life, depending on the statute, with no opportunity for removal. The new system would divide offenders into three categories: low, moderate, and high risk offenders. Low risk offenders would end up on a private law enforcement only (LEO) registry for ten years and moderate risk offenders on a LEO registry for twenty years; the public registry would be reserved for individuals deemed high risk. Address verification, which currently happens every ninety days, would also exist on a tiered system, where each group would be required to verify their information annually, semiannually, and quarterly, respectively. Ullmann estimates that about 85 percent of the fifty-three hundred people currently on Connecticut’s registry would qualify as low risk.

Ullmann estimates that about 85 percent of the fifty-three hundred people currently on Connecticut’s registry would qualify as low risk.

The Sentencing Commission’s final proposal will serve as a recommendation to the legislature. It will still be an uphill battle to sign it into law. Blindly aggressive sex crime legislation is uncontroversial in most legislative chambers, but some state supreme court cases have started to declare probation stipulations like residency restrictions and prohibitions on internet usage unconstitutional. One decision calls the registry “cruel and unusual punishment.” Drastically reducing the public registry would alleviate barriers to housing, employment, and community reintegration. It would also acknowledge that the registry encompasses a heterogeneous population—one could end up on it for anything from pornography charges to (in some states) public indecency to statutory rape (including a relationship between, say, a 15 and an 18 year old) to violent assault—and that it should address different offenses accordingly.

The Connecticut Sentencing Commission has attempted to draft a proposal based on data rather than fear. Ullmann describes the proposal as a compromise—which means, he says, that both offenders’ families and victims’ rights advocates “think it’s crazy.” Offenders’ families think it isn’t going far enough: they particularly object to the lack of retroactivity in the proposal, meaning that the fifty-three hundred already on the registry would mostly stay. For victims and their advocates, it’s a more complicated story.

“My name is Donna Palomba,” she testified to the Sentencing Commission at a public hearing in January 2017, “and I am a survivor of rape. I urge you to always remember the victim. And remember the sex offender offended and committed the crime of sexual violence: child sex abuse, sexual assault, rape. The victim has endured the trauma of this sexual violence which carries a life sentence.”

In 1993, Donna was violently raped by a masked intruder who entered her home and held a gun to her head. Her husband was away on a business trip and her children were sleeping in their bedroom down the hall. When the first responders came, they criticized her for appearing too calm. One said she seemed “flippant.” Donna thinks we have an image of how victims should act that doesn’t account for the way that trauma warps emotions and behaviors: “Victims often get ridiculed because they didn’t cry enough,” she says.

Because he had been wearing a mask, Donna had been unable to identify her perpetrator, but a DNA test found him eleven years later when he was being prosecuted for another assault. She describes him as a family man who had grown up with her husband since kindergarten. “We never would have expected it would be him,” she says. He was taken into custody, and when he was out on bond, he raped an underage girl from a nearby high school. He is now in prison in New York.

Fifteen years later, Donna started Jane Doe No More, an organization dedicated to improving the way society perceives survivors. With its mantra of “no more shame, no more blame, no more fear,” Jane Doe No More runs programs like “Duty Trumps Doubt,” which trains first responders to put their preconceived notions aside and begin by believing the victim, and “Survivors Speak,” which helps survivors learn to articulate and speak publicly about their stories. When survivors can “speak their truth,” she says, “something happens, something transformative. They’re taking back some of the control that the perpetrator stole from them.”

In terms of policy, Donna believes that the most important thing is for the victim to be included in the legal process. “There’s an underlying thought, that is incorrect, that we don’t want to reach out to them because they’re fragile, because they’re made of glass,” she says, “but they absolutely want to be involved in the process.”

“There’s an underlying thought, that is incorrect, that we don’t want to reach out to them because they’re fragile, because they’re made of glass,” she says, “but they absolutely want to be involved in the process.”

Donna says she thinks the sex offender registry is “really important.” Jane Doe No More posts links to the state registries on its website. Registries are “safety first” she says, and then, “I think there’s core offenders that will offend again. I think they need to be heavily monitored.” Her perpetrator, a serial offender, would certainly qualify. But she hesitates when asked what she thinks the point of the registry is. “As I understand it,” she says, “It’s just a voluntary way for any individual to check who their neighbors are, to see if they might live in terror on the same street…it’s knowledge to avoid that road.” Despite her testimony to the Sentencing Commission, she doesn’t necessarily disagree with their proposal, though she says she would be cautious about policy reform. She singles out a “Romeo and Juliet type of thing”—statutory rape convictions for consensual relationships between teens a few years apart—as a scenario where she believes perpetrators should be treated less harshly. At the public hearing, she ended her testimony with a list of guidelines. The final one was: “Decisions about how to address victims’ needs should be based on sound information and research.”

By the time Scott Schwartz was four years old, he could read, write, and throw a good punch. Knowing how to fight was a simple self-defense mechanism for Scott, growing up the youngest of three boys in the Bronx. At four, he had his first drink—his brothers thought it would be funny, though it quickly became unfunny, and the night ended in the hospital with Scott getting his stomach pumped for the first time.

One night seventeen years later, Scott was drunk at an awards dinner. He describes himself as an “all-American kid” at the University of Las Vegas, but by this point, he’d lost his job, his relationship was rocky, he was drinking so much that he was usually “either passed out or belligerent,” and he felt reaffirmed in a childhood conviction that he was a failure destined to end up alone. He drove home from the dinner angry, knowing that he and his girlfriend would fight about his drinking when he got upstairs. That was when it happened. He saw his neighbor through the window of her apartment. She was naked, and he went inside and attempted to rape her.

In the years that have elapsed since then, Scott says, he’s come to understand that he felt his life was spinning out of control, and that he was attempting, in turn, to control another person. But it wasn’t only about dominance, he insists: “It’s also a sexual thing, and I think that’s often forgotten… It’s about wanting that connection too, even though it’s not a real connection. Sex is a very intimate thing, and if you’re looking to control in that way you are looking for some kind of intimacy. Even if it’s totally fake intimacy.”

Scott Schwartz at his parents’ home in Old Greenwich. Photo by Robbie Short.

When Scott attempts to explain his mental state at the time of the offense, I’m grateful for my position as a journalist. It’s almost—but not quite—possible, when you have a notebook and a tape recorder, and when you are the one asking the questions, to put aside your position as 21-year-old woman who knows about the realities of sexual assault. Being a young woman in this country means, in part, that you are constantly reminded that you are a sexual object, subject to the whims and lusts and mercies of men who are bigger and stronger and can hold more liquor than you.  Men have said things to you; they have touched you without asking. If you haven’t been assaulted, your friends have, and they’ve told you about it late at night after three glasses of wine at the kitchen counter, or cuddling on the couch just before falling asleep: in quiet voices, in private places. Some of the women you know who have survived sexual violence are OK. Some of them aren’t. Most of them never report the assault to the authorities (studies from the National Sexual Violence Research Center estimate that sixty-three percent of sexual assaults are never reported). I face green-eyed, well-spoken Scott across the table and think: you are a person, and you did a horrible, horrible thing.

In the years that have elapsed since then, Scott says, he’s come to understand that he felt his life was spinning out of control, and that he was attempting, in turn, to control another person.

The question of policy reform opens itself up to many more abstract questions. Is punishment the only real form of accountability? Is it possible to wade through the murk of shame and fear to have better conversations about sex and sexual violence? Do we believe that people can change?

My personal answers to these questions were tested on the morning of a Sentencing Commission hearing. Cindy Prizio, the founder and director of Connecticut for One Standard of Justice (CTOSJ), an organization that advocates for the rights of those on the registry called, had put me in touch with Vinnie, one of the guys she worked with. Vinnie offered to give me a ride to Hartford.  It was a generous offer: he lived in Waterbury and it would take him nearly three hours to swing by New Haven to pick me up and drop me off. I hesitated: getting into a car with somebody convicted of a sex offense seemed high on the list of things I’d been warned in girlhood not to do. But wasn’t I setting out to counter those fears and misconceptions? I accepted, thanked him, and agreed that we’d text about timing in the morning.

I hesitated: getting into a car with somebody convicted of a sex offense seemed high on the list of things I’d been warned in girlhood not to do. But wasn’t I setting out to counter those fears and misconceptions?

All I knew about Vinnie, besides the fact that he was on the registry, was that he worked at Stop and Shop, had a son, drove a pick-up truck, and laughed easily when we talked on the phone. I was sure, I told myself, that the ride would be just fine. But for peace of mind, I decided to look him up, hoping that he, like many people on the registry, would be a non-violent offender. As it turned out, Vinnie had been convicted of first degree assault in 2002. The appeal, which was struck down by the Connecticut Court of Appeals, was available online. I read the fifteen pages graphically describing how he’d raped his high school friend at their twentieth reunion. I felt physically ill. I couldn’t bring myself to get in a car with him. In the morning, I texted that I was feeling sick. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he wrote back. “Hope you feel better soon.”

I’m sure that nothing bad would’ve happened had I driven to Hartford with Vinnie. He’d been convicted fifteen years before, and I knew that offenders who’d been on the registry for over ten years were extremely unlikely to be dangerous. But this tension between how we feel and what we rationally know is at the core of our misperceptions and our policies.

“Either we decide to give all these people life sentences or we figure out how to reintegrate them into our communities.”

The question here isn’t exactly whether we forgive Scott and Vinnie and other violent offenders. As Hartford public defender Tejas Bhatt points out, there are only two choices: “Either we decide to give all these people life sentences or we figure out how to reintegrate them into our communities.” Scott has been out of prison for eleven years. The night he committed the offense was the last time he ever drank. His record since then has been clean in every way. But the registry made him the target of harassment, made his job search at least as difficult as John’s, and plunged him into debt. He says inclusion on the registry is “still a sentence. It’s keeping me from living life, getting a job, making money.”

Scott Schwartz. Photo by Robbie Short.

Scott and John think of themselves as the lucky ones: they both have homes, advanced degrees, and some hope for their futures. Other offenders slip more completely through the cracks. There’s a man in my neighborhood who, after doing research for this piece, I now recognize from the registry; I see him often in the late afternoons, collecting cans in a clear garbage bag. I try to make eye contact with him, but he keeps his head down. A man named Tim told me about his difficulty accessing welfare services after his release, because these services—like the free eye-care clinic he’d wanted to visit—were housed in churches, which probation prevented him from entering.  “I can’t see without these,” he says, jamming his finger at the thin, rectangular, tortoiseshell glasses that sit prominently on his nose. “How can we expect people to be law abiding citizens if I can’t even get glasses?” A man who identified himself as “Bob” testified to the Sentencing Commission that “being a sex offender in Connecticut is a death sentence…I sit in my apartment or take long walks to pass the days. With no hope what else can I do? What else could anyone do?”

Every state has a sex offender registry—there are about 861,500 people registered nationally—and from coast to coast, people are starting to talk about their scope, efficacy, and collateral consequences. Alissa Ackerman, a sex crimes policy expert at California State University, who is both a survivor of sexual violence and an advocate for policy change, believes in better alternatives. Like Bhatt and the folks at CTOSJ, she thinks that laws about registration and residency restrictions are counterproductive: “The public is so outraged that someone would commit this harm that they will stand beside them, even though research shows that these laws don’t make us any safer,” she says, then adds: “Do you want to feel safe or do you want to be safe?”

Ackerman was raped when she was sixteen. She barely made it through high school and then dropped out of college after her first semester. She’d been a biology major, an aspiring doctor, and a walk-on to the softball team on full scholarship, but by the time Thanksgiving rolled around she was drinking too much and spiraling out of control. At the time, she said, she thought of the man who raped her as a monster. But when she made it back to Florida State University and took her first class in human behavior, she started to wonder what had happened to him that would lead him to cause this sort of pain to another human being.

Instead of treating sex offenses as a criminal justice problem, we might look at them as a public health issue.

Instead of treating sex offenses as a criminal justice problem, we might look at them as a public health issue. Offenders rarely have the opportunity to sit face to face with their victim so they can understand the repercussions of their actions. Ackerman is piloting what she calls a “vicarious restorative justice” program in California (as a survivor, not a researcher), where survivors sit down with perpetrators of other people’s sexual assaults. At this point, she has talked with over two hundred perpetrators: she says this allows her to be “kind and compassionate and also tough” and to “challenge them in ways their treatment providers can’t.” Once, she says, she assumed the position of a man who had served twenty years for a violent rape. She used her experience to say: “This is what you did to me.” By the end, they were both crying. “I realize I could have been your perpetrator and you could have been my victim,” she remembers him saying, “and I am so sorry for the harm that I have caused you.”

Scott’s victim testified at his trial, which helped him in therapy, he says, because it made him understand the extent of the harm that he caused. When he heard her speak about nightmares, night sweats, panic attacks, and relationship problems, he thought: I did that. He thought: How could you trust somebody if someone came in the night?  “I know I affected you in all these ways,” he wrote in an unsent letter-to-the-victim that was part of his therapy program. “If I could take it back, I would.”

Cindy Prizio, the director of CTOSJ, drives me to the First Congregational Church in Guilford, where we set up for a screening of Untouchable, a documentary about people on the registry that tries to capture perspectives of both victims and perpetrators. In 2015, one of Cindy’s close family members was convicted of sexual assault, leading to his incarceration and registration. That was when she started to learn about the world of sex offender laws and threw herself into the advocacy that might be able to change them. Her cause is unpopular both in policy circles and in public imagination. “You’ve got the ugliest baby in the orphanage,” Cindy remembers someone saying to her. But she’s fighting for that baby with everything she’s got.

CTOSJ has been holding meetings, doing outreach, and rallying supporters to testify at hearings, but this screening is their first ever public event. By the time we start, about twenty-five people—some supporters of the organization, some Guilford church-goers—have filtered in.

After the movie, Reverend Ginger opens up the discussion. At first, everyone is more or less in agreement: Bhatt, the public defender, calls the laws “out of hand” and says he doesn’t “know what we get from putting people on a public registry.”  Vivien Blackford, from the Sentencing Commission, says that these requirements couldn’t exist “if people thought of sex offenders as human beings.” A couple of men on the registry weigh in with their experiences. We talk about the difficulty of finding employment and securing housing, the absurdity the standard conditions of probation, like not being allowed to use a computer, and the mandatory fees for treatment, polygraphs, and monitoring software that often plunge struggling ex-offenders into debt.

Reverend Ginger tries to calm things down by speaking over the commotion: “Those on the registry and those who have been abused, both have had their lives ruined.”

Then Cindy says that victims have too much power in the legal proceedings in the state of Connecticut, and that is when—as she will refer to the discussion in the car on our way back—things start to get “vigorous.” Community members fire back. Bhatt says legislation that doesn’t take the victim’s perspective into account won’t win, and it won’t be right. A woman named Karen, who is both a survivor of sexual violence and an advocate for a family member on the registry, agrees with him. Suddenly everyone is picking a side. Cindy’s leg is trembling and Maria—who has a son on the registry—is shaking her fist. Reverend Ginger tries to calm things down by speaking over the commotion: “Those on the registry and those who have been abused, both have had their lives ruined.”

John says that everyone has their “but it’s you” moment. For him, it was at his old friend Caroline’s house. Her ten-year-old daughter was climbing all over his broad shoulders, as she had all her life. “Caro,” John said, turning to her, “What would you do if you didn’t know me, and you heard someone like me moved in next door?”

“Caro,” John said, turning to her, “What would you do if you didn’t know me, and you heard someone like me moved in next door?”

She said she would look into it, that she would want to know what the situation was.

“Caro, really?” John asked, grinning. “You’re telling me you wouldn’t be there with the pitchforks trying to burn my house down?”

“But it’s you,” she said.

Perpetrators of sexual violence are our coaches and neighbors and friends from high school. They are our sons and our boyfriends and our childhood playmates. We might be the victims of their assaults, or someone we love might be, or someone we know, or someone we’ve never met. The moment we recognize that they are our people is when we start to see them as people.

I think if I had gotten in the car with Vinnie, we would have had a good conversation. We might’ve cracked jokes. I might have liked him. I might have thought about how much time had passed since his offense, or that people can change, or that I almost always believe in second chances. I probably would’ve felt the futility and the injustice of the registry system as I learned about his obstacles to community reintegration after his release from prison. And all the while I would have hated that he raped somebody, and hated that sexual violence happens.  Every so often, there would be a lapse in conversation, and I would look at his face or out the window, and we would continue along the highway, towards Hartford, and the hearing, and hopefully, something better.

— Rachel Calnek-Sugin is a junior in Silliman College.

More Stories
Friday night