About two weeks after he was released from prison, Freddie Johnson was arrested on charges of illegally rubbing up against a woman on a crowded Manhattan subway train.
It is a fairly common crime in New York. But this was no common criminal.
Johnson has been arrested a staggering 53 times — the majority for allegedly groping women on subway trains.
In his latest arrest, Johnson was being followed by plainclothes officers who recognized him from police photos. He was charged with persistent sexual abuse, and if convicted this time he could be sent away for life.
But the fact that Johnson was roaming the subways in the first place has raised questions about how the state deals with the problem of repeat sex offenders. His case even drew the scorn of a recent newspaper editorial that labeled him the "Subway Rat."
His attorney, Afsi Khot, had no comment on the case.
History of prior convictions
Johnson, 49, has been convicted at least twice of persistent sexual abuse within the last decade. And he has a lengthy rap sheet, with 30 arrests on charges of sex abuse, 13 on jostling accusations and two grand larceny charges.
Prosecutors say they aren't sure whether Johnson chose his subway targets before boarding trains, or if he would randomly pick out a woman after he was on a train. In his latest arrest, the undercover transit officers said it appeared that he chose the woman at random, district attorney's spokeswoman Jennifer Kushner said Monday.
In a jail interview with the Daily News of New York, Johnson said he never touched that woman. However, prosecutors have he was carrying a messenger bag over the front of his torso, slid it to the back to illegally rub up against the woman, and then moved the bag back to the front to avoid being caught.
He was released from prison March 25 after serving four years for persistent sexual abuse. The state attorney general's office had argued that he should be confined under the state's civil commitment law for sex offenders, which went into effect last year, because he was at risk for repeat offenses.
A judge disagreed and instead placed Johnson on strict court-ordered supervision and electronic monitoring. Under the mental health laws governing his situation, officials generally can't comment on details of his supervision.
Whether he should have been confined speaks to a larger issue about what authorities should do with criminals who aren't violent offenders.
The problem with gropers
Gropers often avoid prosecution because they usually strike in crowded public places so they can easily escape. It is believed around half are repeat offenders, among the highest of all the sex-related crimes, but there isn't much crossover into more egregious acts like rape or assault, said Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor of treatment and rehabilitation of offenders at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
"The behavior is disturbing, there is no question," Jeglic said. "But in the larger scheme you want to commit the people who are grabbing kids off the street, or the rapist in Central Park," Jeglic said.
Johnson was quoted as telling the Daily News that plenty of men try to grope women on subways, and admitted he's been doing it for more than 25 years since he saw another man rub against a woman on a train and dash away unpunished.
The goal of the state's Sex Offender Management and Treatment Act that went into effect last April is to protect society by keeping the most dangerous sex offenders off the streets, and provide long-term specialized treatment to see that they don't repeat their crimes. To qualify, a criminal must have a "mental abnormality," and be "predisposed" to repeat the offense, prosecutors said.
Out of 1,299 sex offenders initially referred to the program in New York, 163 have been recommended for civil commitment under the law, according to a report earlier this year by the state Office of Mental Health. Under the program, sex offenders are committed, treated, monitored and eventually discharged.
While it's painful for the victim no matter the crime, the system doesn't have room to deal with all offenders.
Not enough programs
Currently, 10 percent of sex abuse cases are referred as possibilities for the program, on par with other states that have similar laws, the health department report said. It costs more than $100,000 per person per year to confine them. And there is currently bed space for 181 offenders at three facilities around the state. The development of 150 beds is under way, but it's obvious there will be shortfalls unless long-term projects are developed. Only 5 percent of those committed to the 19 other state programs in the country have been released.
But Johnson may end up behind bars for good if he's convicted in the latest incident, because prosecutors say they will push for more serious punishment given his rap sheet. That means he could get up to life in prison.
A survey released last summer by the Manhattan borough president's office on sexual harassment in the subways found that 63 percent of those responding reported they were harassed in some way, whether it was random groping, lewd comments or unwanted advances. The report was compiled from 1,790 responses collected from New York City straphangers in all five boroughs.