Saturday, November 29, 2014

Josh Gravens, Registry Advocate: “This is what I do,” …..“I provide a perspective that no one has provided before”

Josh Gravens and his family in October 2012
This is not the first time I’ve posted an article (see below) about Josh Gravens'. 

Earlier posts:
He is an inspiration for advocacy and every time I read a new article about him, I become more determined to reform the laws, policies, attitudes and processes here in Virginia. 

Josh’s own words (in the title of this post) really hit home because it’s 100% me. 

This is what I do, I provide a perspective that no one [in Virginia] has provided before. 

I have provided a face, a name, a story on what rewriting our laws, redefining our crimes, lowering the burden of proof, extending the time on the Virginia Registry, piling on additional restrictions (retroactively) year after year has really done not just to the one labeled Sex Offender, but to their family members, room-mates, neighbors, employers , parishioners and society as a whole. And it has made a difference over the last 6 years in the Commonwealth. 
Facts over Fear and Hate!

Keep up the great work Josh! 

Mary Devoy

Inmate rights advocate hopes his story changes minds, November 29, 2014
By Matthew Watkins

Josh Gravens’ résumé is long and scattered: He has herded goats at a farm and repaired wind turbines in West Texas. He has peddled pest control, firewood and Christmas trees. 

But he hasn’t done any of those things for long — it’s hard to keep a job when you’re a registered sex offender.

Now the 28-year-old Dallas resident, who is on the registry for an offense he committed when he was 12, has found a vocation he hopes to keep. For more than a year, he has advocated full-time for prisoners and convicts in Texas. 

In recent months, Gravens has stood before the Dallas City Council urging it to reject a proposal to ban registered sex offenders from areas where children congregate. He has helped organize a rally at the Texas Capitol for hundreds of former inmates and their families. And he has brought journalists to Dallas police headquarters to learn about the sex offender registry. 

His work has gained attention in part because of how open he is about his conviction. For years, being on the registry was a burden, he said. Now, it’s a tool for his advocacy. 

“This is what I do,” he said. “I provide a perspective that no one has provided before.” 

‘Very passionate’ 

Gravens’ most prominent work might be his recent advocacy before the Dallas County Commissioners Court. He worked with County Judge Clay Jenkins to block a plan that would have replaced in-person visits at the county jail with video chats. 

Gravens collected about 2,500 signatures on an online petition against the idea and spent hours recruiting people to voice their opposition at Commissioners Court meetings. The commissioners ended up approving video visitation, but only as a supplement to, not instead of, in-person visits. 

“I found him to be a very passionate and intelligent advocate,” Jenkins said. 

Jenkins said he was impressed with how Gravens understood the impact of elected officials’ decisions on inmates. Gravens said he gained that understanding firsthand after spending most of his high school years behind bars.

His story is difficult to verify, given that documents related to the arrests of juveniles aren’t publicly accessible. Gravens said that even he has been unable to track his case file down, though he did provide a letter from his sister and documents from a related court case years later. 

He said he was arrested on Jan. 15, 2000, at his home in the small community of Eula, outside Abilene. On two occasions months before, he had sexual contact with his 8-year-old sister, he said. 

He said he went to jail after his sister told her mom, who told a Christian counseling service. The counselor reported the matter to police. Officers showed up and handcuffed Gravens the next day, he said. He was charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child and spent the next 31/2 years in the juvenile justice system. 

Gravens described the time in custody as painful, but he said it also exposed him to formal education for the first time. 

Before his arrest, he was home-schooled by his religious parents. In prison, he spent hours reading novels and books on philosophy and government. When he was released in 2003, he felt ready to thrive in a public high school. 

But he soon learned that thriving would be difficult with a sex crime on his record. 

On the registry 

Even though his arrest happened when he was a juvenile, Gravens was listed on the state’s public sex offender registry. At first, no one seemed to notice. He earned good grades in high school, joined the prom committee and was elected to the student council, he said. 

Then, as graduation neared, word spread about his arrest. He spent the final weeks at school as a pariah. 

Life after high school followed a similar pattern. Gravens said he spent a year at Texas Tech University but stopped attending class after a television news report outed him as a sex offender. He got married and had children. But each time he settled into a job, his secret became public and he was fired or asked to resign. One time, his co-workers threatened to throw him out of a wind turbine if he didn’t quit, he said. 

In 2011, he moved to the Dallas area. The hope, he said, was that he’d be more anonymous in a bigger city. But soon he began to believe that anonymity wasn’t the answer. In 2012, he responded to a message on an email list for convicted sex offenders. A journalist from the Texas Observer was looking to write about someone who had been convicted as a child. 

It was the first time he publicly discussed his case, and he said the results were good. The reporter put him in touch with a judge, who agreed to hold a hearing on Gravens’ status on the registry. 

His sister sent the judge a letter saying Gravens had “paid his debt to society and to me for what he did.” The judge removed him from the public list, though he still has to register with police. 

Enormous stigma 

Now, Gravens has no interest in keeping his background private. In 2013, he received a year-long George Soros Justice Fellowship from the Open Society Foundations to educate people “about the harms associated with placing children on sex offense registries.” Many involved in law enforcement say the registries are vital to protect children from predators. 

Gravens said he tries to teach people that the registry includes many people who are no danger to society but suffer from enormous stigma. 

The best way to convince people, he said, is to tell his story. Gravens says hasn’t been arrested for a sexual offense since his time in jail. He has lectured to students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has held monthly support group meetings for people on the sex offenders list. 

“To have his voice out there is just huge because there are so many people who are registered who feel like they have no voice at all,” said Mary Sue Molnar, founder of Texas Voices for Reason and Justice, another inmate rights organization. 

Gravens’ fellowship expires this month, meaning he’ll be looking for a job again. He said he hopes to stay involved in activism. For once, he said, this search isn’t hampered by worries about his past. 

“My life goal, my existence is to put policymakers and the public in touch with people who have the stories,” he said.