Lockout: Sex offenders struggle with housing

by Amy Kingsley

When Demarcus Blakely was 18, he made a mistake.

He messed around with a girl – a young girl – who did what young girls do. She talked. And her mom went to the police.

Blakely said the girl claimed she was 15 – “Hell, she looked like she was fifteen” – but she wasn’t. She wasn’t even in high school yet, an age that made Blakely, a recent graduate, vulnerable to prosecution as a sex offender.

He took a plea and served 22 months in prison for taking indecent liberties with a child, a Class F felony under North Carolina law. After his sentence was up, his lawyer got Blakely’s probation thrown out, and he returned to society with a handful of college credits to his name.

If he were any other kind of criminal, he could have made a fresh start in his hometown, Winston-Salem. But it’s not easy to make a fresh start when you’re a sex offender.

The crime follows you around. It defines you, tells you where you can live and who you can see. Then it turns you into a monster.

“When people see you’re a sex offender,” Blakely said, “the first thing that comes to mind is he done messed with a child or he done raped somebody.”

When states started imposing registration and residency restrictions on sex offenders in the 1990s, it was the monsters they went after. Widespread support for registration laws emerged in the wake of the 1994 rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey by a neighbor with two prior convictions for sex offenses against children. Legislators across the country reasoned that if parents knew the whereabouts of dangerous offenders, then they could keep their children safe.

North Carolina launched its public sex offender registry in 1998, the year Blakely was convicted. That’s when the state Department of Justice began listing each offender’s name, address, offense and age in a database available to the public.

When Blakely was released in 2000, state law dictated that he not live in a home with juveniles or come within 100 feet of the perimeter of a school or childcare center. In 2006, he got a letter from the NC Department of Justice.

The state had increased the buffer to 1,000 feet, a distance that effectively exiles convicted sex offenders from urban communities – regardless of whether the offenses they committed occurred against children. Sex offenders have had so much difficulty following the new rule that the NC Department of Corrections recently went to the General Assembly to ask for more discretion in using their own funds to find places for them to live when they get out of prison.

Rep. Alice Bordsen (D-Alamance) was one of the legislators who introduced a bill that would have allowed corrections officers to house released sex offenders in halfway houses, homeless shelters and hotels.

“In general, the proposal was well-supported,” Bordsen said.

But backlash against a proposal that would have set up sex offenders in hotels at public expense jeopardized the plan. So Rep. Carolyn Justus (R-Henderson) introduced an amendment that would have struck group homes, assisted living centers, hotels and motels off the list of housing options.

“You can’t have sex offenders living with the elderly or the disabled,” Justus said. “Those are some of our most vulnerable populations, and you can’t have that.”

What the state wants is to allow corrections officials to contract with halfway houses to provide housing for offenders freed from prison, but unable to return to their homes.

“Most people when they come out of prison go back to families and homes,” Justus said. “But we’ve prevented sex offenders from being able to do that because in many cases there is a juvenile in the home.”

Blakely lives with several other adults in a two-story house near the intersection of 25th Street and University Parkway. There’s a Food Lion a few blocks north that he can walk to without much trouble. Blakely, who isn’t subject to the more stringent residency rules passed in 2006, never wades into the neighborhoods south of 23rd Street for fear of violating the buffer zone around Kimberley Park Elementary – where his 7-year-old son goes to school.

“I can’t go to none of his school functions,” Blakely said. “His mother has to do everything and that pisses me off. I’m missing out on a very important time in my son’s life because of a fucked up justice system.”

In 2007, Human Rights Watch published a study of registered sex offenders in North Carolina and found that the vast majority did not offend again. More than 98 percent of the 500 offenders in their sample had not committed a second sex offense several years after their release. Including Blakely, who hasn’t committed any other crimes since his release in 2000.

Some opponents of sex offender residency and registration laws say they are counterproductive. A proposal in the NC General Assembly to require GPS monitoring of sex offenders who target children would make it harder for them to get jobs and find housing – contributing to the stress that makes them more likely to reoffend.

“Part of the problem is that people say we want to know where they are,” said Sarah Preston, legislative coordinator of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “But if we don’t allow them to move anywhere, they become homeless and we don’t know where they are.”

Two-thirds of the sample in the Human Rights Watch study had been convicted of taking indecent liberties with a minor, a broad category of crimes against children 13 years old and younger. Most of those offenders are not high risk offenders, and their presence on the registry dilutes its value for parents concerned about protecting their children, according to the report.

“It doesn’t actually help anyone if it’s this huge database that no one can really read or understand,” Preston said.

Blakely was required to register for 10 years, and because he’s followed all the rules and hasn’t reoffended, he’s scheduled for removal from the database in November. After that, he said he hopes to continue his education. He said he wants to work with troubled teens.

“When I was twelve I was molested by a counselor at peer camp,” Blakely said. “I know that’s a burden you have to carry. That’s a scar. I had to go through a lot of counseling and treatment to help me deal with it.”

The laws need changing, he said, particularly for teenagers convicted of minor sex offenses who might benefit more from treatment than incarceration.

“Why do you think they break the law?” Blakely asked. “They’re going out here looking for love, but they’re going the wrong way about it.”

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