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The misunderstood sex offender

William's crime isn’t sympathetic, but among sex offenses it isn’t an anomaly. Why aren't the laws tailored to him?

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"William" left Graham Correctional Center on an August day in 2008 after serving nearly six years locked up on sexual assault charges. And it wasn't until the day of his release that he realized a different kind of confinement awaited him on the outside.

In contrast to some other violent offenders leaving prison, William's debt to society still hadn't been paid. It might not ever be.

Until the day he dies, William will be considered a "sexual predator" by the state of Illinois. His address, photograph, and offenses are listed in an online registry, which William is obligated to update annually. Throughout his prison term his family had visited him often and sent him money, but upon his release he couldn't move back home with them because his mother lives next door to a day care center and his sister has children at home. Though he hadn't committed an offense against a child, William, like any paroled sex offender, can't live within 500 feet of a school, public park, or day care center, and he can't have unapproved contact with minors.

His parole restrictions meant he'd have to wait three years upon exiting prison to see his son. "I was really excited that day I was about to leave, until they laid out to me everything that I won't be able to do," says William, who shared his story on the condition that his real name not be used. "I understand that I couldn't live someplace. But all the other stuff they laid out, like you can't see your son—I was like, 'Wow.' That was the thing that really hit hard."

By his admission, William committed the crime he was accused of: he raped at gunpoint the woman who was his girlfriend and the mother of his child. His offense isn't sympathetic, but among sex offenses it isn't an anomaly. Most sex crimes are committed by people who are acquainted, sometimes intimately, with their victims.

After prison, the lives of sex offenders are governed by a battery of legal restrictions intended to keep them from reoffending. But those laws aim to prevent crimes by people who are strangers to their victims—as well as crimes targeting children. William's crimes, along with the majority of those committed by people whose lives are monitored by these laws, don't fall into either category.

Because so many sex crimes go unreported, statistics that reflect the reality of sexual assault and abuse are hard to come by. But in Chicago, the information that does exist shows that the offender is acquainted with the victim in more than 70 percent of sexual assaults. Nationally, in 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 78 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were committed by nonstrangers. When the victim is a child, the percentage is even higher. Sociologist Michelle L. Meloy, in her book Sex Offenses and the Men Who Commit Them, reports that the assault of children at the hands of unknown adults is "the rarest victim-offender situation, occurring in only 7 percent of cases." The likelihood decreases for younger victims; children under the age of six are assaulted by strangers in 3 percent of cases.

Nonetheless, writes Meloy, sex offenders inspire "more legislation than any other class of violent offender." Most of that legislation has come onto the books over the last two decades, often named after child victims in brutal, high-profile cases where the offender was a stranger. But the laws don't just apply to those who didn't know their victim. They also cover the other 70 or 80 percent of offenders.

Bob Dougherty, the executive director of St. Leonard's Ministries, a Chicago nonprofit that focuses on prisoner reentry, says these broad laws—and residency restrictions in particular—were created with the narrowest segment of sex offenders in mind.

"There are a few people at the top of the pyramid who are going to need constant watching because of the nature of their makeup," Dougherty says. "And then further down is this wide spectrum of people who don't need to be watched. They did a dumb thing. I'm not saying it was right, but they're 21 and had sex with a 16-year-old, or some such thing. But when they're treated with the same degree of concern as this small amount at the top, it makes life really difficult for them."

When William was paroled, he joined more than 23,000 registered sex offenders living in Illinois. Some remain on the registry for a decade after they're released, some for life.

There are other restrictions, too. The laws regulating sex offenders range from broadly restrictive to quotidian. Only one paroled sex offender can live in a multiunit building. Offenders whose victims were underage can't live within 500 feet of a school, public park, or day care center. Sex offenders are banned from using social-networking websites. Sex offenders on parole can't dress as Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. They can't hand out candy on Halloween. Paroled sex offenders aren't allowed to possess prescription drugs for treating erectile dysfunction.

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