The scarlet letter 


‘The people around here will talk your head off," says "Jay," a resident of the Lake Shore Village mobile home park on North Orange Blossom Trail near Silver Star Road, as he climbs into the passenger side of my car at the neighborhood's railroad-track-lined entrance. Jay — who would prefer not to use his real name for this story as he is "just trying to get on with my life" — resides on the wrong side of the tracks, literally. The 23-year-old shares the inauspicious parcel with more than 100 other registered sex offenders, each living in a state of suspended transience.

Placards on trees throughout the park warn of the presence of surveillance cameras. There are no children allowed here; the entrance sign says this is a "rule-restricted community." The winding dirt roads inside are cluttered with tiny living quarters signaling the end of dignified options. Everyone here has a story to tell, says Jay, and most of those stories would emphasize individual character, mistakes and innocence. Everyone has a reason they shouldn't be here. Jay has been in residence for two years, paying $310 a month for a lot and $100 a week for a $10,000 trailer.

Placards on trees throughout the park warn of the presence of surveillance cameras. There are no children allowed here; the entrance sign says this is a "rule-restricted community." The winding dirt roads inside are cluttered with tiny living quarters signaling the end of dignified options. Everyone here has a story to tell, says Jay, and most of those stories would emphasize individual character, mistakes and innocence. Everyone has a reason they shouldn't be here. Jay has been in residence for two years, paying $310 a month for a lot and $100 a week for a $10,000 trailer.

In October, Lake Shore Village garnered notoriety when nearby resident Barbara Farris made headlines by protesting the existence of the mobile home park. Farris, who told reporters that she was a survivor of abuse, drew attention to a school bus stop near the park. When Orange County Public Schools refused to move the bus stop, she threatened to open a day-care facility in the area, thereby forcing all of the sex offenders out under the state and county's 1,000-foot rule. At a recent homeowners association meeting, residents were able to placate Farris temporarily by allowing her to install video cameras in the park, the footage from which would be viewable only by her and law enforcement. Jay and the other sex offenders in the mobile home park didn't really have much of a choice in the matter. There is no sympathy here.

"Now we are under surveillance by somebody who is just waiting for someone to slip up, or appear to do so," says Jay.

Lake Shore Village is one result of the ever-expanding state and federal sex offender registries. Sensationalized media accounts beget political campaign sloganeering, and the result is the perception of a dire public threat. Lost somewhere in the exponential growth of Florida's sex offender registry — there are nearly 55,000 names listed at present — is any consideration of key facts: recidivism rates are low, resources are being stretched thin and lives are being ruined. Most sex offenses on children are not actually committed by skulking strangers, but rather by family members or acquaintances. (A 2000 Bureau of Justice study showed that 59 percent were acquaintances, 34 percent relatives and only 7 percent strangers.) Residency restrictions are zoning offenders into the margins, if not off the radar. Measurable risks are being ignored, while punishment grows.

"It's more about making people feel safe," says Jay, "not making them really safe."

"It's more about making people feel safe," says Jay, "not making them really safe."

Functional leper'

Jay was arrested on Feb. 28, 2006. He was 19 at the time.

On Oct. 18, 2005, investigator Michael Baute, from the state's Child Predator CyberCrime Unit, logged a report that he had detected child pornography coming from the shared file cache of Jay's computer at his mother's Apopka home. Specifically, he located a file containing a video of two young girls, ages 3 and 4, "masturbating and performing oral sex on an adult male." The video was familiar to Baute, as it was cataloged in a list compiled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Further inspection revealed 147 more files, some of which included potential child pornography in their titles.

On the morning of Feb. 28, officers from the Florida attorney general's office and the Orange County Sheriff's office knocked on Jay's mother's door and executed a search warrant. There they found a marijuana plant growing in Jay's bedroom closet, along with pornography on Jay's computer. He was caught on a recorder admitting that he liked girls under the age of 18. He was arrested and taken to jail.

"My story is that I downloaded a lot of pornography using a peer-to-peer service, using Limewire," he says. "Everybody I've talked to who's used it has said, ‘Look, you can easily download something and it's not what it says it is.' Now, I did look at girls who were under 18, but, like, I was 19 years old. I was more into girls that were like the girls I went to high school with. They were trying to pin on me stuff with little kids, which was stuff that I would just filter through and delete."

"They assumed that because I looked at this, or because I had this on my computer that I was a potential candidate for being a pedophile or a predator," he adds. "That's what it was."

Jay was charged with 22 third-degree felonies for possessing material depicting sexual performance by a child (the marijuana charge was dealt with through pre-trial diversion). In December, 2007, he pleaded no contest to five of the charges — the remaining 17 were waived — and was placed on six years of youthful offender probation. His name was added to the sex offender list, and within 72 hours of his conviction, he was forced to find a new place to live. His mother's Apopka residence had schools and parks nearby. That's when he found Lake Shore Village.

Since his arrest, Jay's been living the life of "a functional leper."

He has a curfew between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. He originally had to see a counselor once a week (although after passing two polygraphs, he now only has to go twice a month). His attempts to re-enroll in college have been met with rejection, and holding a job — or even getting one — is near-impossible given the fact that his supervisor must maintain contact with his probation officer. Typically, on job applications he goes for "will explain in person" on the line about criminal history, rather than putting down "attempted sexual battery."

"The difficulty is extreme," he says. "It always makes you out to be the ogre's ogre."

However, he's not asking for sympathy, just the ability to move forward.

"I fucked up. I was stupid," he says. "But I'm now in a category with people who kidnapped children under 12 and `people` getting children to perform a sexual act."

Jay's mother — who also wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from strangers — has come to her son's defense, joining a growing coalition of family members of sex offenders and other advocates who would like to see the unintended life sentence addressed logically. They've presented their arguments to legislators and community groups in hopes of swaying public policy from mob mentality back to risk-based science.

"People are finally beginning to say, ‘Enough of this, stop it, we're tired of being lied to,'" she says. "You're creating a hysteria out there that doesn't exist. Let's talk about the 50,000 people on the register. How many of them don't even need to be on the register?"

"There's so many aspects when you think about this situation with sex offenders," she says. "Let's just start with the fact that they're classified as sex offenders and then put on a registry, without any consideration of risk. So the Department of Justice has a 10-year study that they did ending in '94 indicating that the recidivism rate — the rate of re-offending for sex offenders — was 3.5 percent. California followed up with an additional study in 2003 and basically mirrored the same Department of Justice Study: 3.5 percent recidivism rate. This was all prior to residency restrictions. That means that `nearly` 97 percent of the people that are on the register are not going to re-offend: They're low-risk, no-risk individuals. What we have done by diluting the register with all these individuals is doing nothing but making it more difficult to identify who are the high-risk offenders. It contradicts the very purpose of the register in the first place."

Everyone's innocent

From the other side of the law, the view is a little different.

"I can tell you that in a majority of cases that I do involving child pornography, one of the biggest hurdles you have is that people have an expectation in their mind that when someone is looking at child pornography, generally you're looking at 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds who look 18, 19, 20, the Lolita aspect," says assistant state attorney Lorena Vollrath-Bueno. "When the majority of it is infants, toddler, 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds involved in penile-vaginal, or sadomasochism, or sex among very small minors."

Vollrath-Bueno spent two years prosecuting sex crimes in Orange County and now does the same in Tallahassee. She realizes that the laws are strict in the Sunshine State, but also notes that victims of sex offenses are saddled with a far worse sentence than offenders.

"Now, of course no one wants to be a registered sex offender, and this is one of the constant arguments that I get from defense attorneys is that being a registered sex offender is a lifetime sentence in the fact that you will have mandatory reporting for the remainder of your natural life," she says. "And we're going to trial a lot more because people don't want to be registered sex offenders. But at the same time, I think that the general public's outrage about some of the things that are seen on the news and in the media pales in comparison to the reality of some of the things that I see on a regular basis."

Vollrath-Bueno hears complaints like Jay's on a regular basis — that porn was downloaded accidentally, or that it only happened once — but doubts their veracity. She also asserts that perhaps the low rates of recidivism are a sign that the monitoring of sex offenders is working, not the other way around.

"I'm sure that the numbers are so low because they are so monitored," she says. "And also, we put them in counseling. And obviously being a sex offender and re-offending is a big deal. I can tell you that the majority of the cases that I have in which somebody gets caught for the first time, it is usually not the first time they've done something."

Managing the fate of alleged offenders isn't a task she takes lightly, however. There has to be some common sense applied between the letter of the law and the situation at hand.

"A lot of what happens with the prosecution of sex cases is there has to be discretion of a prosecutor," she says. "Because the reality is that kids in high school have sex. And kids younger than high school have sex. Determining what is a sex crime and what is legislation that is attempting in some way to impose certain moral ideas is why it is so important to have an experienced prosecutor to deal with those cases.

"One of the reasons we do the work we do," she adds, "is we would like for the general public to continue to feel safe and not have to worry about the things we worry about."

"One of the reasons we do the work we do," she adds, "is we would like for the general public to continue to feel safe and not have to worry about the things we worry about."

Political fires

According to "Registering Harm," a report by the Justice Policy Institute, the sex offender scare began with the saturation of media coverage throughout the 1990s. While the rate of violent offenses decreased by 25 percent between 1991 and 1998, and forcible — as opposed to statutory — rape decreased 19 percent in that period, there was a 128 percent increase in newspaper articles focused on sex offenses. The federal Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offenders Act was passed in 1994, requiring offenders to register for 10 years. (Wetterling's mother, Patty, has since come out against expansion of sex offender laws, saying, "We need to be realistic. Not all sex offenders are the same.")

Megan's Law — named after 7-year-old murder victim Megan Kanka — amended the Wetterling Act and raised registration to 15 years when it passed in 1996. A national registry linking all state registries was signed into law by President Bush after the 2003 sexual assault and murder of a 22-year-old woman, Dru Sjodin.

Florida became one of the states with the most strict sex offender laws with the 2005 passage of Jessica's Law, named after Jessica Lunsford, who was raped and murdered by John Couey in 2005. Jessica's Law brought with it a 25-year mandatory sentence and lifetime GPS monitoring for sexual predators exploiting children under the age of 12.

The disparity between state and federal regulation of sex offender registries is presently being addressed by the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, passed in 2006. Within that law, the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, SORNA, seeks to codify minimum sex offender standards in a three-tiered form. Critics of SORNA suggest that it's just the same crime-based — not risk-based — assessment with a different name.

Under SORNA, the designated worst offenders — those on tier three — actually re-offend less than presumably lower-risk tier-one offenders, says Cheryl Griffiths, director of the advocacy group The Uncomfortable Truth. The punishment does not suit the crime, Griffiths says.

"I mean, it's ridiculous. It's insane. But you tell the legislators the facts and they just simply don't want to hear it," she says.

Moreover, implementation of SORNA — which the state of Florida has until July 2010 to enact — won't be cheap. According to a presentation by sex offender advocates the Florida Action Committee in October 2009, first-year costs for SORNA will be near $30 million, largely for software. The amount states stand to lose in federal grant money should they not implement the program is just $1.2 million.

Those numbers don't seem likely to quell the political fires that carry sex offender legislation further into punitive territory, though. Florida governor Charlie Crist ran on a platform of banishing sex offenders. His website lists the following under "Safety and Security": "Governor Crist believes that prison sentences should be increased for child sex offenders. He believes in zero tolerance for sexual predators and sexual offenders."

He's not alone. A Nov. 4 Miami Herald piece examining flaws in Florida's sex offender restrictions quoted state Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami Beach, saying, "As far as I'm concerned, if you want to send them to Georgia, I would be happy."

Jay's mother says that she found a little wiggle room when presenting her case to state Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, but only a slight acknowledgement that there might be a problem.

"Anything regarding sex offenders, the whole issue is we are classifying this so broadly that people are getting caught up," says state Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. "Are we wasting a lot of resources on people who are not a threat to society? Because we are spreading those resources so thin, the people who may be a threat, we're creating such a big population of them that it's just going to get worse."

"Anything regarding sex offenders, the whole issue is we are classifying this so broadly that people are getting caught up," says state Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. "Are we wasting a lot of resources on people who are not a threat to society? Because we are spreading those resources so thin, the people who may be a threat, we're creating such a big population of them that it's just going to get worse."

Nowhere to go

Political ramifications aside, the practicalities of the sex offender registry and its residency restrictions render it almost unsustainable. A 2006 study showed that given the current 1,000-foot restrictions in Orange County, the number of available homes for sex offenders is 4,233. If a 2,500-foot rule were to be applied — as it is in other parts of the state — only 37 residences would be available for those on the registry. In Miami-Dade, sex offenders have been relegated to living in a shantytown under the Julia Tuttle Bridge connecting Miami to Miami Beach due to a 2,500-foot rule. And the arbitrary limitations may not be accomplishing anything.

"We recently did `a study` here in Florida that found that there's really no relationship between proximity to schools and day-care centers and whether or not they recidivate," says Dr. Jill Levinson, human services department chair at Lynn University in Boca Raton. "In other words, sex offenders who lived closer to schools and day-care centers did not re-offend more frequently than those who lived farther away. And, you know, that's probably not surprising, because sex offenders do not molest children because they live near schools. And it does nothing to regulate where they go during the day, whether they live near children."

In fact, by removing the possibility of stable housing, lawmakers may be achieving the exact opposite effect to what they're aiming for. Housing instability is a known predictor of re-offense in any crime. But there's something in the salaciousness of the charge — the sex — that makes these crimes seem worse. DUI offenders — who kill 17,000 people nationwide each year — can live wherever they like.

"We also recognize that not everybody who is arrested for drinking and driving is necessarily an alcoholic," says Levinson. "We recognize that there are circumstances, that people may make errors in judgment, people may go through discrete periods in their life where they're drinking more than other times in their life, but there are different circumstances that occur. We recognize even that there are gradations of murder and other kinds of assault … but when it comes to sex offenses we don't seem to be willing to accept that. The assumption is that everybody is the same."

Changing that assumption is virtually impossible, according to ACLU Foundation of Florida associate legal director Maria Kayanan. The ACLU filed a suit in early July against Miami-Dade County on a technicality, attempting to overturn the 2,500-foot rule on the basis of state law pre-empting county law. The case was dismissed in trial court, so now the organization is readying an appeal to the Third District Court of Appeals. Kayanan says that they're trying the case as a civil pre-emption matter because nearly all other challenges to residency restrictions have been tossed out. The wall is too high.

"It's going to take an appellate court, or a series of appellate courts, to make some inroads into the effects of the current restrictions," she says. "But in terms of changing the hearts and minds of people, I don't know how you do that."

"I have to tell you," she adds, "I was asked by a young offender who's living under the `Tuttle` bridge, who's not old enough to buy beer, he asked me why they didn't teach him in high school that if he hooked up with someone who lied about her age that he could end up living under a bridge and being a sex offender for the rest of his life."

"And I said it's because they were too busy teaching you abstinence only. It makes no sense, but these are very popular laws, and politicians will push popular laws.

"They're popular because they create the illusion of safety, and we all want to protect our children."

our children."

Stuck

Childhood is something that Jay feels like he missed out on. His home — basically a futon couch, a climb-up bed and a kitchenette — may resemble a teen hangout, with its Zombieland and Bob Marley posters, but his demeanor is that of somebody 10 years his senior.

Being a sex offender makes you grow up fast, he says. His mother has had to change, too.

"My mom just very much always tried to throw a pillow under me," he says. "Now she's fighting this to try to get it changed. I made this mistake on my own. She still feels like she's guilty, this was her fault, that she could have prevented it. She just feels a lot of guilt on herself."

Lake Shore Village, meanwhile, buzzes with post-work activity. Prior to becoming the receptacle for the region's zoned-out sex offenders, the mobile home park had a reputation for crime. Now the residents keep an eye on each other, while Barbara Farris keeps an eye on them.

"A lot of `the residents` will run off prostitutes and run off drug dealers," Jay says. "A lot of them will patrol the neighborhood to make sure that no one is doing what they're not supposed to be doing."

For all his recently acquired wisdom, Jay has a bleak outlook for his future, mostly because he doesn't know if he has one beyond the park.

"The thing is, this affects everybody. There's just so much I want to say. I'm stuck," he says. "I'm stuck in Orange County. As an American I should at least have the ability to protect myself or vote. I'm not allowed to leave the country — I can't leave the county. Do you know how many jobs I've lost? I can't get a job. I get in there, it's great, then, ‘I'm sorry, we've got to reject you.' All because of this. It will never leave me. It's a life sentence."

"I'll sum it up just like this: They put the scarlet letter on you and they say, OK, now go and be normal."

bmanes@orlandoweekly.com

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