For new readers, here is the event that occurred that led to the below.
Virginia know all too well about “murky rules”
that the state of Virginia makes no effort to advise our
Sex offenders registry may put man back in prison for offence committed as child, April 16, 2015
Aged 12, Josh Gravens committed a sex-related felony. Charged with failing to update his register details, he now, aged 28, faces a possible 25 years to life in jail
By Anna Codrea-Rado
Josh Gravens is trying to figure out how he’s going to tell his five children that he might be going to prison for a very long time.
Gravens, 28, is a one-time convicted juvenile sex offender facing a possible 25 years to life sentence for a felony related to a crime he committed in his childhood, and for which he has been to prison already. The current charge is not a repeat sex offence; he just failed to correctly update his personal information with his local police department in Texas.
Sex offender registration is a complex set of rules mandating how former inmates should live their lives after they have been released from prison for committing a sex crime. Failure to do so can carry heftier punishments than that of the original crime.
Gravens grew up in a trailer home in a
“It was more important that we studied scripture and be ready for the rapture than learn any other skills that made us travel away from home,” Gravens says.
Homeschooling consisted mainly of looking after the family’s animals and land, followed by Bible readings in the evenings. Gravens could not read or write until he was 13. He had little interaction with other children growing up, except when he was driven 30 miles twice a week to go to church.
“Even our car didn’t have AC and so when we went anywhere, we sat in misery,” Gravens says. “Misery is a word that describes my childhood pretty perfectly.”
When Gravens was 12, he touched his eight-year-old sister’s vagina. Gravens says it was non-penetrative and he thought of it as play at the time, but it was not consensual. A few months later, his sister told his mother what had happened, and she called a Christian counselling service to ask what she should do. The counsellor informed Gravens’ mother that under federal law they were obliged to inform child protection services of the incident.
The following day, Gravens says, police officers came to his house and arrested him. He was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault and spent three and a half years in juvenile detention facilities.
Gravens deeply regrets what he did to his sister, who he says has long since forgiven him. His sister supports his advocacy work but does not take an active role in it. When Gravens appeared on the cover of the Texas Observer in 2012 – the first time he spoke publicly about his past and the start of his career in advocacy – his sister did not take part in the story but did not object to Gravens’ decision to tell it.
Gravens says what happened between him and his sister was probably misguided experimentation on his part, led by his ignorance. Many child psychologists would agree – sexual exploration between siblings is considered a normal aspect of development in children.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network says that the cultural and religious beliefs children are taught about sex will strongly influence their sexual behaviour. Most definitions of what is considered age-appropriate behaviour are based on an assumption that children are educated in a school environment.
Looking back on the incident now, Gravens says he did not have anyone he could ask the questions a young boy his age had about the human body. Gravens says he was taught by his parents that masturbation was a sin, as was pre-marital sex. He says his mother also told him homosexuality was a sin.
This is why when, aged seven, an acquaintance who had been tasked with watching over Gravens when he was younger dressed him up as a girl and sexually abused him, he was too scared to tell his mother about it.
“It was clear that if I was going to talk about it, my mom wouldn’t love me any more and God would send me to hell,” Gravens says.
Gravens served his sentence in four different juvenile correction facilities around
“When you boil humanity down, all of those traits are on display in prison,” Gravens says. “It’s probably the most human experience possible, because we don’t have the construct of the fakeness you see around you. There is no facade in prison. It is real human experience.”
Between the ages of 14 and 16, Gravens served the remainder of his sentence in the now-closed Bill Clayton detention center, where he received sexual offender treatment. The sessions were conducted in groups and the detainees would be asked to raise their hands if they had masturbated the previous day; they were also required to keep masturbation journals and were asked to act out sexual positions on each other.
Gravens, whose prior sex education consisted of being taught “bottom” as a catchall term for genitals, was given a “sex education on steroids” in prison. “My first session in sex offender treatment we went over every sexual term you can imagine,” Gravens says.
In the therapy sessions Gravens says he and his fellow detainees were told they would never have normal sex lives. He says they were told that it would be wrong to have sex with anyone because, as sex offenders, they would be victimising any future partners.
Gravens says: “When you think about therapy, it’s supposed to be someone walking you through your life and your thoughts and feelings and let you discover who you are and what’s going on. In this type of treatment, the counsellor directs you through your life and tells you who you are. Often the premise of who you are is based on their beliefs that you’re a sexual predator. It’s brainwashing that instills a deep fear of yourself.”
The sex offenders register in the
The types of crimes that result in being on the registry vary by state – and in some states misdemeanours not involving children, such as public urination or patronising a prostitute, can result in inclusion on the registry. The public registries contain profiles of registrants which include their name, age, an up-to-date photo and their current address.
Gravens was removed from the public registry in 2012, following an application to the judge who originally sentenced him which included a letter from his sister in which she states that she forgives Gravens for what happened in their childhood.
Despite no longer appearing on public registries, Gravens’ conviction is still held on the law enforcement register, and he is required to comply with registration requirements until he is 31 when he will be permanently removed from all registries.
Information about sex offenders was first made public after the murder of Megan Kanka, who was brutally killed by a convicted child molester living in her neighbourhood. Proponents of the public sex offender registry say that it protects children from predators because their parents and guardians have access to information about any offenders living in their area.
However, the effectiveness of public disclosure about sex offenders has been questioned. In 2003 the Department of Justice found the percentage of sex offenders who were arrested for a subsequent sex crime within three years of release to be 5%, compared to 68% rate of reoffending across all crimes.
Failure to register is a felony; convicted sex offenders are legally required to keep their local police department updated of changes in their circumstances, including address changes. Each state has different requirements about registration, which have been criticised for being opaque. Human Rights Watch says registration rules are complicated and difficult to comply with, particularly for youth offenders.
Gravens now has three strikes against him for failing to correctly keep the authorities abreast of his movements and activities. He says all three failure-to-register charges were because he was misinformed or unclear about the rules.
His first charge was for not registering in another state when he spent more than a week there, and his second was for spending more than 48 hours in a month in one particular municipality in
When Gravens was released from prison on parole at 16, he moved back into his parents’ house. “I went from a prison to a prison at home,” he says.
Gravens’ parole conditions called for a security system on all his windows and doors. His door was locked from the outside at night when he went to sleep and he says he wasn’t able to open his windows during the night to cool his room down.
Another condition was that he had to be enrolled in a public high school. Gravens was relieved, because he says his parents had wanted to homeschool him again. The irony is not missed on Gravens that because he was sent to prison, he was given access to the education that had been absent from his childhood.
Gravens went on to do well at school. He was elected senior class president and to the prom committee. He says he loved school, that being there made him happy and it was a welcome respite from his family life. No one was aware of his conviction at school, only the superintendent who Gravens believes didn’t share the information with anyone else.
In the final two weeks of his senior year, however, a news story broke about a horrific sex crime elsewhere in the country that created national interest and drew attention to the sex offender registry. A parent at Gravens’ school looked up the local registry and found his name. Within days, Gravens says everyone knew about his past and all the peace he had enjoyed evaporated.
A similar situation happened when Gravens went to university. Putting his final weeks of high school behind him, he went on to
Another time, Gravens went to the DMV with his mother and waited in line to apply for a driving license. When he reached the desk and handed over his paperwork, he says the clerk asked him, in front of the crowded room, for his blue card. In
The shame that he felt that day, and hurdles he faced as a result of his status, followed him. Finding a job and housing was a constant problem.
In recent years, Gravens turned his life to advocacy work. He was awarded the Open Society Foundation’s 2013 Soros Justice Fellowship, and he speaks publicly at colleges and universities about what happened to him. He says he wants to challenge people’s perception of what it means to be a sex offender. Gravens describes himself as a registry abolitionist. He believes that pursuit of child safety has distracted from the real danger – which is that child molestation chiefly happens by someone known to the child.
Right now, his priority is being the best father he can be. Gravens is likely to stand trial in the summer. He still hasn’t decided what to tell his children about what he’s facing. He says he’s trying to raising them with the knowledge and tools not to do what he did. He also wants to protect them from the reality of the work he’s doing.
“The reason I put myself out there is because I want to create skepticism,” Gravens says. “It’s challenging the perceptions of what we think is reality. Most people who hear the term ‘sex offender’ think of the person jumping out of a bush to take a kid. That’s not the case for everyone on the register.”