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Offender-turned-advocate still caught in sex-law maze

Josh Gravens’ childhood was turned on its head when he was reported to authorities at the age of 12 for inappropriately touching his younger sister. He ended up spending 14 years on a register for sex offenders and eventually became an advocate for youths in similar situations.

But this summer he is facing a trial that could send him to prison for as long as 10 years for a minor infraction of complex notification rules for moving to a new residence.

Gravens acknowledges that his original act was nonconsensual, but like many other youths placed on public sex offender registries, he thought of it at the time as play. Gravens had grown up in a religious home where questions about the body were unwelcome. When his sister told Gravens’ mother about the incident months later, she phoned a Christian counseling service, which contacted child protection services.

And just like that, Gravens, still in middle school, became shackled to the complex laws that apply to anyone convicted of a sex offense, irrespective of age or the gravity of the offense. As Human Rights Watch has documented, people convicted of sex offenses, including children, are subject to harsh public registration laws, on top of time in prison or juvenile detention, with their personal information placed on online registries.

They often become targets for harassment, humiliation and even violence. Sex offender laws also severely restrict where and with whom youth sex offenders may live, work, attend school, or spend time.

For a child, these laws can be devastating. Gravens spent 3½ years in juvenile detention facilities, then was placed on the registry. There were years of isolation from his family, ostracism and public alienation. When we spoke with him in 2012, he described his 14 years on the registry as a “slow death by humiliation.”

But in 2012, Gravens was interviewed about his situation by a reporter from the Dallas Observer after he responded to a message on a sex offender email list. Encouraged by the positive response, Gravens began to share his story, putting a face to an often faceless system and shining a spotlight on the senseless harshness of registration laws applied to children. He became an advocate for changing the system.

Gravens was taken off the public registry later that year after he submitted an application to the original sentencing judge, accompanied by a letter from his sister saying she had forgiven him. In 2013, Gravens — now married and a parent — became a Soros Justice Fellow, using his own story to educate Texas policymakers, lawyers and law enforcement on the harm that sex offender registry laws cause children. Through his newfound dedication to reforming the laws that ruined his childhood, Gravens had transformed his story from devastation to hope.

Sadly, that wasn’t the end of his story. I recently discovered that Gravens, who will remain on law enforcement’s nonpublic registry of sex offenders until he is 31, could go to prison for failing to inform law enforcement of a change of address within the required seven days.

People on the sex offender registry are often subject to a dense and complex web of registration requirements, which can be difficult to follow. In this case, the Texas statute has differing registration requirements depending on whether the move was intended.

But the consequences of making an error can be enormous. Gravens says that, because prosecutors contend that he has two prior convictions for failure to comply with registration requirements, he could be looking at two to 10 years in prison. The first was for traveling out of state for work and the second for spending more than 48 hours on three occasions in the Texas city where he was working but was not registered. Both, he said, resulted from his difficulties fully understanding the complex laws governing his movements.

He was offered a plea bargain — a weekend in jail and another felony added to his record — but turned it down.

A jury may end up determining in September whether Gravens should once again be placed behind bars. I can only hope the life that Gravens has built for himself and the hope he has given others will not be undone. We can be more humane, more compassionate, more just than that.

Samantha Reiser, Special Contributor -- Reiser, formerly a program coordinator with the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, is working with Fortify Rights, a human rights group in Southeast Asia.

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