Used with permission
By MICHAEL HOBBES . . . The first time Damian Winters got evicted was in 2015. He was living with his wife and two sons in suburban Nashville when his probation officer called his landlord and informed him that Winters was a registered sex offender.
The previous year, when he was 24 years old, Winters had been arrested for downloading a three-minute porn clip. The file description said the girl in the video was 16; the prosecutor said she was 14. He was charged with attempted sexual exploitation of a minor and, because he had used file-sharing software to download the video, attempted distribution of child pornography.
Winters had no criminal record, no history of contact with children and no other illegal files on his computer. Facing an eight-year prison sentence, he had taken a plea deal that gave him six years’ probation and 15 years on Tennessee’s sex offender registry.
The day after his landlord found all this out, Winters found a letter on his porch giving him and his family 72 hours to move out. He ended up in one homeless shelter, his wife and sons in another.
He had no idea that it would be the last time he would ever live in a home. He has been sleeping in shelters, halfway houses and parked cars ever since. . . .
Winters is a member of an expanding and invisible American underclass. In 1994, when Congress passed the first sex offender registration law, the list was reserved for law enforcement officials and only applied to the most serious offenders. Since then, American lawmakers at every level have relentlessly increased its scope and severity.
The registry now includes more than 900,000 people, a population slightly greater than Vermont’s. At least 12 states require sex offender registration for public urination; five apply it to people charged with offenses related to sex work; 29 require it for consensual sex between teenagers. According to Human Rights Watch, people have been forced to spend decades on the registry for crimes they committed as young as 10 years old.
“When we first started talking about registering sex offenders it seemed like a good idea,” said Jill Levenson, a Barry University researcher and social worker who has published more than 100 articles about sexual abuse. “But now the net has widened. They’re for life, there’s no mechanism to come off and there’s more restrictions on employment, housing and travel.”
The conditions imposed on registered sex offenders have become significantly more draconian over time. More than 30 states now require registrants to live at least 1,000 feet away from schools, churches and other places children congregate — a requirement that renders up to 99% of homes and apartment buildings off-limits. Some states require registered offenders to submit to regular polygraph tests and random police inspections. Florida adds “sexual predator” to the front of registrants’ driver’s licenses. Louisiana doesn’t allow sex offenders to evacuate from their own homes before natural disasters.