In the run up to Halloween one year, Sharie Keil saw something that really made her jump: Missouri governor Jay Nixon, then the attorney general.
He was on television to announce that registered sex offenders were hereby banned from participating in her favorite holiday. On threat of a year in jail, they had to stay inside and display a sign saying they had no candy. The goal was “to protect our children,” as Nixon put it, but Keil heard only a peal of political hysteria.
She is not a sex offender nor, at 63, a new-age apologist for pedophiles or predators. She is a mother, however, and in 1998 her 17-year-old son had sex with a pre-teen girl at a party. He was convicted of aggravated sexual abuse, which got him six months in county jail and a lifetime of mandatory registration as a sex offender. Ten years later, after the Halloween law, Keil felt shocked into action.
”As my husband says, I decided to go on the war path,” she remembers.
Today, she’s at the forefront of a growing fight against sex offender registries, a shame-free alliance of offenders and their families, supported by researchers and some advocates who helped pass stringent anti-abuse laws in the first place. They’re organized (albeit loosely) under Reform Sex Offender Laws, a five-year-old lobby that claims 38 state affiliates and a steady patter of legal and legislative victories.
Most of their progress, however, has been limited to a slice of the registry: juvenile offenders. That would remove Keil’s son, but this former soccer mom and chapter head of the League of Women Voters wants to abolish the public registry altogether. She funds a powerful RSOL affiliate, Missouri Citizens for Reform, which has helped push sweeping changes through the Missouri House four years in a row, only to see the effort smothered in the Senate or, last summer, stabbed by a governor’s veto.
“Changing the registry would provide relief for tens of thousands of Missourians,” Keil says. “Since there are nearly 800,000 people on the registry nationally, millions of lives would change for the better.”
As reckless as Keil’s ideas may sound, she and her intellectual allies—among them Nicole Pittman, an attorney who slammed registries in a Human Rights Watch report last year—are fervently opposed to sexual abuse and believe in jail time for law breakers. However, they also hope to realign the law with second-chance ideals and new research that shows rehabilitation is possible, even for America’s last pariahs.
If they succeed, Keil believes, public safety will actually improve. As the registries shrink or disappear, law enforcement will be freed to focus on crime prevention. If the movement fails, she warns, public safety could suffer. Truly dangerous people will be lost in the thousands that police must monitor, while relatively harmless offenders break bad in a system that gives them no hope for a normal future.
“We’re all in the soup,” Keil says, using one of her favorite metaphors for describing the way the registry absorbs all offenders, undifferentiated by risk. “They throw it over everyone, and it’s like being in a quagmire. You can’t lift your legs high enough to get out.”
“We need to forget everything we think we know about sex offenders, because 20 years of research has shown us it’s all pretty much wrong.”
To victims’ advocates, of course, that’s precisely the idea. For years many have lobbied to apply the term “sex offender” to a broad cross section of juveniles and adults, flashers and rapists. The rationale is that sex offenders are incurable, insatiable, and psychologically the same. Under federal law, for example, a Jerry Sandusky-type will be on the registry—and so will a 14-year-old whose hand wandered under the knickers of an 11-year-old sibling. Under Missouri law, Keil’s son got the same registry requirements as a violent attacker.
Since 1994, when Congress first required sex offender registries, the population on the rolls has doubled and doubled again. “It seems to make sense, doesn't it?” said President George W. Bush, moments before signing the Sex Offender Registry and Notification Act of 2006, which expanded registration to nonviolent crimes like indecent exposure and public urination. Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN, the country’s largest anti-sexual assault organization, called it “a landmark bill…that’s going to make a real difference.”
Keil wants to shatter this mindset. Over the years, her family and affiliated businesses have sunk more than a quarter million dollars into Missouri politics, including tens of thousands of dollars related to sex offender reform. That kind of money opens doors and Keil has hired a lobbyist to walk through each one. She wants to win with data, not emotion. And last year it seemed she had.
The Missouri legislature passed a law that would remove juveniles from the registry, making it the first state to vote its way out of compliance with federal law (others have yet to vote their way into compliance). Keil saw it as a first step to broader reform. But Nixon vetoed the bill last July.
Now Keil is hoping to hit back by telling her personal story for the first time. After the veto, the Associated Press revealed Sharie’s lobbying role and published her husband’s name and primary business. Fearing vigilantism, she requested that NBC not repeat those names or the name of her hometown.
With those conditions met, she welcomed a meeting in a gazebo on her ranch south of St. Louis, where she explained what the governor—and everybody else—needs to do when it comes to sex crimes.
“We need to forget everything we think we know about sex offenders,” she says, “because 20 years of research has shown us it’s all pretty much wrong.”
“We've cast such a broad net that we're catching a lot of juveniles who did something stupid.”
In the aftermath of her son’s conviction, Keil felt “smashed to the floor” by the requirements of his sentence. The weekly probation meetings. The mandatory therapy. Slip ups could mean jail time. What if he got a flat tire near a park? What if he pulled into a school parking lot to use a pay phone?
“It felt harder to stay out of trouble than is even possible,” she says.
Sex offenders have come to face a medieval series of possible fates, including chemical castration, civil commitment, and, most commonly, a lifetime on the move. They jump from apartment to apartment, job to job, pushed out as employers and landlords discover their public records—and point to the door. Today, if the registry were a city, it would have more people than Boston and Halloween would be the least of its problems.
But hold on a minute, Keil thought: does any of this actually help public safety?
She found part of her answer in the form of Mary Duval, another mother of a registered sex offender. Duval’s son was 16 when he slept with a 13-year-old he had met at a club for older teens. After his conviction for sexual abuse, he had “sex offender” stamped on his license and couldn’t go to his brother’s football games. Duval decided to fight it, inspiring Keil to do the same.
“I was so desperate,” Keil remembers of meeting Duval at a gas station in map-dot Oklahoma. The women couldn’t have been more different. Duval was blind and rural. Keil is a city girl, the daughter of a fashion designer who had the Johnny Carson line of outerwear. But after Duval died of cancer in 2011, Keil felt she was inheriting the fight.
She clutched a summary of her position as she spoke in the gazebo, the paper shaking slightly as she made her points, all based on recent academic research.
Sex offender laws developed in response to a seemingly widening crisis of childhood sexual abuse in America. In fact, the rate of sexual crime involving children has been falling for at least two decades, according to David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. The steepest declines came before the spread of registries, he adds, and the drop has continued even as more sex crimes are being reported.
It’s still a problem. The National Crime Victimization Survey reported 346,830 rapes and sexual assaults against people aged 12 and over in 2012, the latest year available. In years past, about a fifth of those cases involved victims between 12 and 19 years old. The Department of Justice says that as many as one in three girls, and one in five boys will be sexually abused by the time they reach 18. That’s a tragedy, Keil is quick to admit, but unfortunately, she says, sex offender registries are not a solution.
They’re based on the idea that if you know who the dangerous people are, you’ll know who to avoid. But 93 percent of sexually abused children are not violated by a lurking stranger, according to government data: They know their assailant. The bulk of the remaining seven percent of crimes are not committed by people on the registry. In fact, the recidivism rate for registered sex offenders is lower than any crime other than capital murder, and not because of the registries themselves, according to study after study.
“These policies don’t work,” says Elizabeth Letourneau, Ph.D, director of the Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse at Johns Hopkins University. She recently reviewed 20 studies of registry laws and found that 18 showed no reduction in repeat offenses. “When you have 20 studies that fail to support your policy, you have a failed policy,” she continued.
Pittman, who spent 16 months studying registry laws for Human Rights Watch, called the laws “overbroad,” “misconceived,” and “devastating,” particularly for juvenile offenders. Now she has come to a new conclusion: abolishing the rolls entirely. “We’re going in the wrong direction,” she says, noting that America is the only country in the world with a public sex offender registry. “We’re going to a police state kind of model.”
But perhaps the most surprising convert to the idea of abolishing registries is Patty Wetterling. After her young son Jacob was abducted by a masked man in 1989, Wetterling helped Congress pass the first federal sex offender registry law. Today, she’s board chair of the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children, an organization that supports current law. She used to agree, but today, she can sound a lot like Keil.
"I'm a fan of reform," Wetterling said in an email. She leans toward the view that only law enforcement should have access to registries and only genuinely dangerous people—as determined by doctors—should be on them.
“We've cast such a broad net that we're catching a lot of juveniles who did something stupid or different types of offenders who just screwed up,” Wetterling told a Minnesota newspaper last year. “They are very different from the man who took Jacob.”
Keil is thrilled with such dramatic shifts in opinion, but she’s also at a loss regarding the politics. As Missouri legislators break for summer campaigning, she’s hoping to build momentum toward a new push for her juvenile reform bill this fall. So far, it looks unlikely that Nixon will sign her bill as written.
But Keil isn’t giving up.
A day after the gazebo meeting, Keil met a friend named Pamela Dorsey, a fellow activist whose son landed on the registry at 18. He was charged with possession of child pornography—an old download, Dorsey says, part of a torrent of images he ripped from a file sharing service some four summers before, when he was 14. One of the files had been tagged by federal agents, who showed with the morning sun in January 2010.
That July, Dorsey’s son plead guilty and got 40 years of probation along with a lifetime on the registry. As he learned what registration meant, and what it did to the way people saw him, this clean-living, former choir-boy turned to heroin for relief, his mother believes. By November he was dead of an overdose.
But that’s not what haunts Dorsey the most.
“His death has not traumatized me as much as what he went through before he died,” she says, clutching a framed photo of her son. “It’s horrifying, it’s insanity, and it’s wrong.”