Larry was in big trouble, and he knew it. For six months he’d been having sex with Laura, the 16-year-old daughter of his fiancee, with whom he was living in a town house in the western suburbs. It was mid-December 2000, 12 days before he and Joan were to be married. Laura was talking to Joan in her bedroom, and as he stood in the upstairs hallway he could hear his name being hurled back and forth. Uh-oh, he thought, and fled to the garage in a haze of fear and self-loathing.
There Larry, a short, compact 48-year-old former army sergeant with a military bearing, smoked a cigarette while a heavy snow fell outside. Should I run out the door and never come back? he wondered. Should I stay in the garage? Should I throw myself on a knife?
Half an hour later Joan walked in, disbelief in her eyes. “Is it true?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“How could you?”
“I don’t know. It’s something I never wanted to happen. I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t. I was scared what you’d do if I told you.”
He asked if he could spend the night downstairs, pointing out that it was snowing hard, but she ordered him to leave immediately. He threw some belongings in a suitcase and drove to a motel. He says he was contemplating suicide.
In the months that followed, Larry (whose name has been changed, along with those of other people identified only by a first name) confessed to his crime, spent five months in jail, then entered a strict probation program that includes counseling. The nature of his crime requires him to register his address with the local authorities for the rest of his life. A current photograph, his address, height, and weight are now posted in the sex-offender section of the state police Web site. They’re also hanging on the wall of his local police station.
Larry knows that he’s an object of scorn, a modern-day leper. He says he’s pretty much resigned to that, and he can see that some positive things have come from his conviction. “This hasn’t been easy, but now I’m more able to deal with the bad thoughts that come over me,” he says. “And in terms of learning how to live honestly with myself and how to treat other human beings, this has been good for me.”
But Larry has also had trouble finding a place to live, and though he had a good job for a while, he’s now unemployed and is having a hard time finding work. He’s particularly worried about his long-term job prospects. He says he’s done everything society has asked him to do and hasn’t slipped up since his arrest. He wishes that society would someday let him lose the stigma of his crime.
Now Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan is pushing a bill that wouldn’t affect him but could punish future sex offenders like him even more harshly than current laws do and could allow less flexibility in how the terms of an individual’s sentence and supervision after his release are determined. “You should judge people on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “At some point you have to talk about rehabilitation and giving us a chance. Is it right that I wear a scarlet letter forever?”
The day after Joan kicked him out Larry went back to the town house to apologize, but she threw him out again. And she reported him to the Department of Children and Family Services, which began an investigation.
For over two years Larry had been doing training and process analysis for a shipping-supply firm, where Joan also worked in a higher-level position. Just before Christmas two of his supervisors called and gave him the option of resigning or being fired. “I asked if I could stay until formal charges were brought,” he says. “And they said, ‘No, we don’t think that’s a good idea.'”
Larry told his family. “I was in total shock,” says his sister Greta, who’s a nurse. “I didn’t think Larry had any inclinations this way. Can you imagine? Larry and Joan were supposed to be getting married. Lives were being destroyed here. We tried to support him, but it was depressing. When I first saw his face, it was like the aging you see in those pictures of the president at the beginning of his term and then four years later.”
Larry moved in with his father, a retired auto-parts-store manager who lived near O’Hare. Joan demanded that he tell his two daughters from a previous marriage what he’d done or she would. “Something happened,” he says he mumbled over the phone to his older daughter, then in her early 20s. “I did something wrong.” He didn’t say much more to his younger daughter, but he says she knows what he did and can’t quite forgive him.
On January 31, 2001, Larry was indicted by a Du Page County grand jury on four counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. He was arrested–he says it was his first arrest since being taken in for curfew violations as a teen–and his father posted the $10,000 bail. The story never made the papers or the TV news, and he managed to get J. Michael Fitzsimmons, a former Du Page county state’s attorney, to defend him.
Fitzsimmons told Larry to stay away from Joan, but he talked to her regularly, which is how he learned that Laura was in counseling. On his own, he says, he consulted the yellow pages and called a 12-step program for people with sex addictions. “At the first meeting I was scared shitless,” he says. “I thought, do I really belong here?” But within weeks he was attending regularly and soon had a sponsor to lean on for support.
According to Larry, Fitzsimmons told him he’d made a deal with the prosecutor, Mike Reidy, that would keep him out of jail if he agreed to pay for Laura’s treatment and undergo treatment himself. He says Fitzsimmons later told him that Reidy’s superior had vetoed the plea bargain. Fitzsimmons has since died, but Reidy says neither he nor anyone else in his office ever considered such a deal.
Larry pleaded guilty. He could have gotten three to seven years in prison under state sentencing guidelines. But he had no other convictions, and in early May the judge gave him four years’ probation, which included five months in the Du Page County jail, and ordered him to cover Laura’s counseling bills. Because his victim was a minor, he was now labeled a “sexual predator.”
A couple of weeks later, on the Saturday before Larry was to go to jail, Greta hosted a family dinner. Even Joan was there. “Everybody was trying to be festive, to boost Larry’s spirits before he went off,” says Greta. “But it was sad.”
Larry worried that once in the jail, which adjoins the county courthouse in Wheaton, he’d be the object of “beatings and gang rapes,” but he quickly saw that neither was likely. He was housed in a block of 18 cells on two levels with guys a generation younger, including a man convicted of a double murder. The only people he told what he was in for were two older men also doing time for sex convictions, one of them a communications executive from suburban Denver. “He and I said that we would be there for each other,” says Larry, “to keep each other in check and to move forward.”
In jail he read a lot, mostly self-help books and a series of romance novels set in medieval Scotland. He enrolled in classes offered by Justice Understanding Service & Teaching, which provides education and social services to inmates. He took a course on emotional healing and an acting class taught by Richard Oberbruner, who’d studied at Second City.
Oberbruner remembers thinking, “This is an odd candidate for improv.” Larry is extremely talkative, but he’s also soft-spoken and converses with care and deliberation. One day the class did a skit in which he played a white rider in the backseat of a cab stuck on a ghetto street. Suddenly two young black men approached. “Larry jumped out the door of the car and yelled at the two black guys, and he just seemed to crawl out of his skin,” says Oberbruner. “He lost all his self-consciousness. It was half acting and half ‘I’m stuck in jail–get me out of here.’ He was brilliant. It was his big moment.” Larry says it was also cathartic and helped him cope. Before he left jail he suggested that JUST offer other classes, including a creative writing course.
Larry was released late that October and began being supervised by the county’s probation department. Since 1995 it has run a special program for sex offenders modeled on one in Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix. Larry is required to check in with a probation officer every two or three weeks and to submit to random home and work visits by the officer as well as random drug and alcohol tests. (So far he’s had five home visits and two drug tests.) He isn’t allowed to drink or look at sexually stimulating material, including that on the Web, and he has to take a polygraph test at least once a year. He’s also required to be in therapy until he gets off probation, in May 2006. (The Maricopa County program has even more requirements, including curfews.) He was handed a list of psychologists who were approved to direct his treatment and chose Michael Davison, who has an office in Arlington Heights near his father’s place.
The current favored treatment for sex offenders is a form of group therapy called “relapse prevention.” Initially used with alcoholics, the program was adapted for sex offenders in the 80s by Janice Marques, a California psychologist, and popularized by her colleague D. Richard Laws in a 1989 book. Its proponents say it’s cheaper than one-on-one therapy, and it makes use of a powerful tool–the offenders themselves, who spot each other’s lies and rationalizations but also offer real empathy. “When you’re facing a half dozen other people who’ve been there, so to speak,” says Marques, “that’s better than your talking to some therapist who hasn’t.”
Larry has been in one of Davison’s sex-offender groups since December 2001. Most of the eight men in it are in their 40s. All pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial. They meet every week for an hour and a half with Davison and a social worker in a nondescript room with a couch and some chairs. The leader among the offenders is George, a University of Chicago graduate who molested his stepdaughter. “George is bright, with a genuine wish to get better,” says Davison. “He talks frankly about his stuff and gets on you about your own.”
The sessions are marked by emotion, tears, and humor. Larry enjoys Davison’s caustic wit, though he says not everyone does: “Mike can piss a person off.” According to Davison, a molester in another group once announced that he thought he’d been providing sex education to his daughter. “I think you’re onto something,” said Davison sarcastically, then role-played a school superintendent urging the father to download pornography, share it with his daughter, then fondle her on her bed.
Most newcomers to sex-offender groups, says Davison, “view themselves as normal guys who screwed up, but there’s way more to it than that. There is a pattern of behavior that is best looked at in the context of their entire developmental history.”
In relapse-prevention therapy the first thing a new member of the group must do is face his “cognitive distortions,” the way his mind has framed sexual crimes so he can see them as acceptable. “You come to realize your thinking has been wrong,” says Marques, “that the woman you raped didn’t want it, that the teenager you had sex with didn’t seduce you.”
Larry arrived thinking that his relationship with Laura had been “a sexually mutual one.” He’d courted Joan quietly because they thought their relationship might be seen as inappropriate at work. He says that to deepen their bond he told her about his infidelities–the brief dalliances he’d had during his marriage, a longer affair, and the inappropriate advance he’d once made to the teenage daughter of a friend. He says Joan seemed to accept his remorse, and in April 2000 she agreed to marry him. That November he moved into her house.
By then he’d been having sex with Laura for five months. She was a petite girl who looked younger than her age, and he helped her with homework, taught her to drive, and advised her on relationships with boys. He persuaded himself she was flirting with him and started rubbing her back and tucking her in at night. Finally he started having sex with her, either when Joan was away or after she’d gone to sleep. He says the sex consisted of mutual masturbation and him giving her oral sex. He admits they once came close to having intercourse but he lost his erection. “Intercourse was a line I couldn’t cross,” he theorizes. “I told Laura that if she didn’t want me to do anything I wouldn’t, and that’s how I justified it. Part of my thought process was that she wanted it. I never stopped and thought, what are you doing?”
The sex tapered off as Larry’s wedding to Joan drew closer. Laura finally told her mother after a dinner-table conversation about a family friend who’d been accused of having sex with a minor. “We told Laura that if anybody did anything of that sort to her,” Larry says, “she should come forward.” He says he’d never sworn her not to tell about the two of them, but he was horrified when a few days later she did.
Davison’s group–particularly George–quickly set Larry straight about his belief that Laura had sought his affections and that her not ordering him to stop had given him license. “The group would say, ‘That’s bullshit. Who’s the adult here? How old was she again?'” Larry says. They also called him on his idea that not having intercourse with her somehow absolved him. “I came to realize that any act causes victimization,” he says.
Larry also came to believe that his pursuit of Laura had been complicated by other motives–anger at Joan for keeping their relationship from coworkers and for failing to invite him to accompany her to a party, his need for power and control, the thrill of flirting with danger, a desire to sabotage his own ambitions. “A lot of people have patterns of self-sabotage–getting to a certain level and screwing up,” says Davison. “Here you’re talking about someone who chose a sexual vehicle.”
Davison and the other offenders helped Larry see how he’d repeatedly indulged in the forbidden, felt ashamed, then packed away the shame as a secret. “Laura became my own little other world,” he says. He also acknowledged that he’d been guilty of a “grooming pattern”–enticing the mother into his embrace, then slowly enfolding the daughter too. He says he learned to put himself in Laura’s position, turning her into a figure of empathy rather than of sexual craving: “My concern turned to Laura and how I hurt her.”
That’s what his concern should always have been, says Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a statewide association of rape-crisis centers. She says sex crimes can be extremely damaging to the victims: “To be reduced to an object for someone else’s pleasure–it leaves you with fear, a sense of betrayal, and a lack of safety. It takes an awful lot of time and energy to recover.”
Outside of sessions Larry wrote down his personal and sexual history. His family was Catholic, and he’d grown up with his two older sisters near Addison and Cumberland and later in Wheeling. His mother, a receptionist, was an alcoholic. “There were problems related to that,” says Greta. “My dad would be upset with my mom, and there was fighting.” Larry says his mother’s alcoholism diminished her in his eyes: “I had her on a pedestal. How could she?” His relationship with his father was difficult. “I was never real good at sports or academics, and he pointed out my faults,” he says. “I always felt like a failure.” Only as an adult did he learn that his father had sexually abused his oldest sister when she was teenager.
Larry briefly attended Harper College in Palatine, then in 1971, just before he turned 19, enlisted in the army. He trained as an artillery specialist and shipped out to Germany. “I found the army was something I enjoyed,” he says. “I did well in a structured environment, doing work I felt was important. Also, being single and in Europe, I was living the dream of every 20-year-old, with all the partying and the girls.” At 22 he married a young woman he’d known back in the States. They eventually had two daughters, and he rose through the ranks–he would win a Bronze Star as a first sergeant during the gulf war. But he drank excessively. “I was never an abusive drunk,” he says. “Instead I wanted to party–and make passes at other women.” He had the affair and several one-night stands. And though he listened to the personal problems of the soldiers under him, he never sought help himself. “I was always concerned that if I went to a counselor,” he says, “my cheating would come out and it would dissolve my marriage.”
He’d first realized that he was intensely attracted to adolescent girls when he was in his mid-20s. He says he didn’t act on the impulse until a dozen years ago, when he was visiting an army friend in Germany who had a 15-year-old daughter. “The girl’s parents had gone to bed,” he wrote in his history. “She was in her underwear, and her breasts were visible through her T-shirt. I rubbed her back and got aroused. I fondled her breasts–and scared the hell out of her. I stayed with my friend that night, but afterward the daughter told her parents and that ended the friendship.”
He swears this was his only transgression before Laura, but sex offenders are notorious for undercounting their sins. “When they tell you they’ve done something a time or two, multiply that by several factors,” says Linda Grossman, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and an authority on treating sex offenders.
Larry was a sergeant major and training adviser for the Utah national guard when he retired from the services in 1997 and hired on with a defense contractor. That November he asked his wife for a divorce. “There was nothing left in the marriage,” he says, “and I wasn’t willing to put anything new in.” Larry’s mother was dying of pulmonary disease, and that fall he moved back to Chicago to be with her.
Soon after he arrived Larry found work as a technical writer and started seeing Kathy. Kathy says she liked his sense of humor and gift of gab, and they moved in together, intending to marry. Two years later Larry admitted he was having an affair with Joan, and Kathy tossed him out.
Over several group sessions in early 2002 Larry read his 21-page history aloud. He says he was embarrassed to share the erotic thoughts he’d had about female family members growing up and about adolescent girls later on, the details of all the womanizing, the abuse of the friend’s daughter in Germany and of Laura. During one session he broke down crying. Afterward, he says, “I was absolutely drained and exhausted.”
The next step in relapse-prevention therapy involves identifying things that might trigger a slipup and then finding ways to head them off. “People have to learn how not to get into trouble,” says Marques. Davison says this step is especially important for sex offenders because they’re inordinately susceptible to being swept away by lust. “These are people who just get such a charge and a spark from their feelings,” he says. “Their physiology goes haywire–offenders talk about this like a crack addict would talk about getting high. There’s such an emotional component here.”
With the help of the group, Larry came up with a relapse-prevention plan that he wrote down and carried around in his pocket until he could carry it in his head. Most important, he tries to steer clear of situations where he might encounter adolescent girls. He attends Sunday services that are held in a high school in Naperville but says, “If there were to be a school-spirit event going on I wouldn’t go to services that day.” And he tries to sit up front to avoid seeing teens who might be there. He no longer drinks; he’s not allowed to under the terms of his probation, but it also helps him keep control of himself. On Friday night he regularly goes out to dinner and a movie with his sister, her husband, and Kathy, who’s remained a friend. He says he makes sure the film they’re seeing doesn’t have scenes involving teenage girls and that if there is one he’ll walk out of the theater. If he sees a provocative picture of a girl on television he’ll change the channel.
Some temptations are unavoidable. “If I do see an attractive girl somewhere, with a nice body, and feel something,” he says, “I’ll recognize that I’m having that thought. And I stop myself and think, ‘Now that’s a person, an individual.’ I’ll stop viewing the girl as a sex object.”
Davison says even the best-intentioned sex offenders frequently have mental lapses. “These men will get lost in their thoughts and go home to masturbate to them,” he says. “It’s a private thing–you can’t get arrested for it. But that’s considered a lapse.” Sharing those lapses is vital to preventing future ones. “Sex offenders like to keep secrets–they eat secrets for breakfast,” he says. “But once they talk about what they’ve done it defuses the situation, and a lapse is less likely to take place down the line. You should rely on people who will ask you, ‘How are you? When did you last masturbate? What did you masturbate to?'” Larry says he’s had lapses and has quickly talked about them with his therapy group or with his sponsor at the sex-addiction 12-step program.
Davison says that some of his patients are more likely than others to relapse. He’ll put a patient he believes has a strong propensity for relapsing on an antiandrogen, which reduces testosterone and therefore desire. But antiandrogens have side effects–weight gain, depression, headache–and he prefers to use relapse prevention whenever possible. He says that in a decade of treating offenders, only two of his patients have been arrested for a new sex crime, both for “exhibitionism.” Sandra White, supervisor of adult sex offenders on probation in Du Page County, says that only “very rarely” has one of her charges been arrested for a new sex offense. In the 13 years the Maricopa County program has been keeping records, only 2 percent of probationers have been arrested for a new sex crime.
Other research on relapse-prevention therapy shows higher rates of recidivism. According to a study published last year by Canadian researcher Karl Hanson, 10 percent of sex offenders treated primarily with the therapy are arrested or convicted again within five years, compared to 17 percent of offenders who don’t get the therapy. That’s a 42 percent drop in recidivism, but an analysis of numerous studies by a Kent State University professor showed only a 30 percent drop, making relapse prevention about as successful as antiandrogens. (Hanson points out that all these numbers represent undercounts, since many people who have relapses aren’t caught.)
“The public won’t find that persuasive,” says D. Richard Laws, who wrote the 1989 book touting the therapy but has since developed doubts. He says that in his experience most offenders are in relapse prevention only because they have to be, that in the Florida program he once directed, “the guys were on probation, and they just didn’t want to be there.” They would show up one week but not the next; half of them simply stopped coming. He also says it’s hard for many participants to change their aberrant behavior: “It’s all they’ve known how to do for years.” He now prefers a therapy model from New Zealand that puts offenders into four categories based on how capable they are of change, then provides different programs for each category. Asked if he plans to continue therapy once he’s off probation, Larry says, “I probably will, though perhaps not on a full-time basis. But it’s a tool I will always use.”
The statistics on sex offenders get even muddier when all crime categories are considered. The latest figures from the Illinois Department of Corrections show that 50 percent of convicted sex offenders will be charged with or convicted of some new crime, including a parole violation, within three years of their release (about the same rate as all other released prisoners). Davison says one of his patients was arrested for drinking in violation of his probation and another was arrested for domestic battery. The DOC doesn’t keep figures on what crimes the sex offenders commit, but a 2002 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study of recidivism in 15 states, including Illinois, found that 46 percent of released rapists were arrested within three years for another crime (many involving violence and drugs) but only 2.5 percent for another rape.
Du Page County requires sex offenders who are on probation to take a polygraph test at least once a year, but Davison has his patients take one about every six months. He gives the testing service three questions specific to a patient to see if he’s relapsing or otherwise slipping up. Larry, who tends toward compulsiveness, gets nervous before each polygraph appointment; he’s failed a couple of questions, but the exam has yet to turn up a relapse. Davison says Larry, like all his patients, will have to be vigilant for the rest of his life. “The moment you feel that you’ve got your problem beat, that’s when you probably haven’t got it beat,” he says. “You’re never out of the woods.”
Today the public is much more aware of sex crimes than it was a generation ago, and it’s no coincidence that many of the stories we hear involve children: according to the Illinois State Police, 85 percent of convicted sex offenders in the state preyed on individuals who were under 18.
In 1996–after the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Megan Kanka of New Jersey–Congress enacted Megan’s Law, which directed states to give the public access to sex-offender registration information they were already keeping. Illinois’ notice law, enacted later that year, required the state police to maintain and make public a database on sex offenders, which is now available on the Internet. The hope was that if the neighbors knew someone had been convicted of a sex crime they’d be able to keep their kids away from him and he’d be less likely to relapse.
In Illinois many offenders, including those who’ve raped an adult, must register their whereabouts annually with the local police or sheriff’s office for ten years after their conviction if they’re put on probation or ten years after their release if they’re sent to prison. Those who’ve been judged sexually dangerous (convicted of repeated crimes) or sexually violent (convicted of brutal crimes), or who’ve been deemed sexual predators (convicted of possessing child pornography, pimping for a child, or assaulting a child) must register for the rest of their lives. The state police provide quarterly lists of all offenders to schools, child-care facilities, and DCFS. Sex offenders can’t live within 500 feet of a day-care center or school, and they can’t loiter within 500 feet of a playground.
According to a survey by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, rape and other sexual assault rates in the U.S. went down 52 percent between 1993 and 2000. Michael Rand, chief of victimization statistics with the bureau, says that criminologists cite different reasons for the decline. Some point to increased levels of incarceration of offenders, some to a better economy, others to changes in the drug culture, and still others to registration and treatment programs. But the trend may be shifting again: the Illinois State Police recently reported a 5.8 percent increase in rapes in 2002.
When Larry was released from jail, now a felon convicted of a loathsome crime, he worried about his job prospects. “I thought I’d never be able to get a job,” he says, “except to pump gas.” He called a former supervisor at the shipping-supply company who’d become an operations manager for a construction-tool manufacturer. “Larry said he needed a job,” says Greg. “He came in, we talked, and I hired him as an independent contractor.” When a full-time position as a production manager opened up, Larry took Greg aside and told him about his criminal past. Greg says he told Larry, “I know about that. But I also know what your capabilities are, and it’s not for me to judge you.” He hired Larry for the position.
Larry rented a town house near the company but didn’t check the box on the application stating that he’d been convicted of a felony. Two months later, he says, “I was coming home from a 12-step meeting, and there was a guy who gave me a notice to vacate.” There was no box to check on the next application, but he leveled with the manager anyway. He says the manager told him, “Just because you’ve been arrested doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a place to live.”
Larry has lived in that town house since October. The place is fastidiously neat, and he always has four place mats and matching napkins on the dining table, even when he isn’t expecting guests.
When he moved into his first town house Larry went to the local police station to register. They took his photograph and fingerprints. The photo, with him looking stunned, and his address promptly went up on the state police Web site. He was now one of 13,000 sex offenders on the site; another 2,000 offenders have been told to register but haven’t. After he moved he registered at the new local police station. “I was signing out when I looked up and saw my picture on the wall,” he says. “I thought, ‘Oh shit. Anybody from work could see that.’ Then I thought, ‘There’s nothing I can do to change this. If a person sees my picture they will ask me about it or they won’t.'”
When he finally told his former girlfriend Kathy he’d gone to jail for a sex crime she said she already knew–a friend had come across the information while at the courthouse. But so far no neighbor or acquaintance has confronted him with information gleaned from public records or the Web site.
“When Megan’s Law first went into effect I was quite distressed about the implications,” says Davison. “I thought we’d get vigilantes forcing sex offenders from their homes, but I haven’t seen that.” He says only rarely has one of his patients faced outright hostility. “One guy did keep getting his car vandalized, and he was pretty much convinced it was because of the registry,” he says. “He was probably right, but then he had a very active presence in the neighborhood. This was someone who’d fondled a boy, and the neighbors hated him. There he’d be outside washing his car and saying hello to all the kids as they walked by. Most offenders’ lives aren’t so public.”
Nevertheless, Davison says, “for the first six months that I see people they are completely paranoid about the registration and notification. At some point they let it go, and the subject comes up less and less. I encourage them to do that. I tell them to live their lives as if everybody knows, because there’s evidence that if lots of people know, the less likely you are to offend again.” One patient, a residential developer who’d molested his stepdaughter, lost a sale when the buyer found out. “Now he’s learned to lead with the information–he tells customers up front,” says Davison. “While he’s lost deals because of it, that’s better than competitors undercutting him with the truth.”
Last June, during her campaign for attorney general, Lisa Madigan called for lifetime supervision of sex offenders. Two weeks earlier 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart had disappeared from her Salt Lake City home. A few months before, seven-year-old Danielle van Dam had been snatched from her house in suburban San Diego and was soon found dead in the desert.
“Sexual assault of a child is one of all parents’ greatest fears,” said Madigan, standing with Orland Park’s police chief at a press conference. “Far too many women and children are victimized by sexual predators. The recidivism rate for those convicted of sex crimes is too high to ignore. Serious prison sentences are critical to addressing the problem of sex crimes, but prison alone is not enough. Once released from prison, sexual predators must be monitored closely by law enforcement for the rest of their lives.”
It wasn’t clear how she defined monitoring, but Larry, who wouldn’t be affected by any new legislation, was dismayed. “I thought she was just exciting the emotions of people, depicting offenders as the scum of the earth, who have no chance to turn themselves around,” he says. “It was an easy platform for her to drum up support.”
His sister Greta remembers hearing the news and feeling “disdain. ‘That’s just not right,’ I said to myself. Maybe if Laura had been 12, sure, I could see it. But she was just short of 17, and girls are very advanced at that age today.” UIC psychology professor Linda Grossman scoffs at that logic: “It’s normal for men to fantasize about 16-year-old girls. It’s not normal to have sex with them–it’s against the law.” True, says Greta, “but I see a distinction here between the child molester who abuses a toddler and Larry and what he did to a person who’s almost an adult. I’m not excusing him for his actions–and maybe I’d feel differently if it wasn’t for him–but Larry shouldn’t be supervised for life.”
On March 5, seven days before Elizabeth Smart resurfaced, Madigan got more specific about her plan for lifetime monitoring. Her proposal, she said at another press conference, was about “making sure you have people, not just computer databases, that are responsible for keeping track of sex offenders once they’re released and back in communities.”
State representatives Mary K. O’Brien, a Democrat from Watseka, and Jay Hoffman, a Democrat from Collinsville, put together a bill based on Madigan’s proposal and a 1998 Colorado law and submitted it to the General Assembly. They want to make treatment mandatory from the moment a person pleads guilty or is convicted at trial. They want to lengthen sentences for sex offenders, raising the minimum and making each sentence a range, with life always the maximum. They also want to change the way a prisoner’s release date is set. Under the current law an offender knows in advance when he’ll get out if he behaves well; under the new legislation, whether he got out after serving the minimum would be determined by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. Illinois abandoned this kind of “indeterminate” sentencing in 1978, but Doug Simpson, chief of the attorney general office’s criminal division, says, “The idea is to furnish [a bigger] incentive for treatment, for getting a GED, and for staying out of trouble.”
Some people who work with offenders worry that the flexibility the system appears to have could be undermined by so much power being given to the PRB, which has a history of inflexibility. The 15-member board, which is loaded with former law enforcement officials, now sets the conditions under which prisoners can be released. It also holds hearings on how much additional time inmates who’ve screwed up have to serve, and it decides whether prisoners confined under the pre-1978 indeterminate sentences can be paroled. In 2002 the PRB held parole hearings for 332 of these aging prisoners and granted parole to only 10.
The PRB members, says Chip Coldren, president of the John Howard Association, an inmate advocacy group, “have been overly conservative. They don’t like to let prisoners out, and I predict they won’t be lenient with sex offenders–and judges won’t either. So many in the justice community operate from the common belief that sex offenders are the most difficult to treat. Some may be, but to lump them all into the same class is absolutely wrong.”
The new legislation would also lengthen parole terms for offenders once they’re released from prison and would give the power to determine the period to the PRB. Someone who’d been convicted of a grievous crime such as rape would be placed under state supervision for anywhere from 20 years to life. Someone who’d been incarcerated for a less serious sex felony would be placed under supervision for ten years to life. (Offenders who were given only probation would also face long periods of supervision, but the length would be determined by a judge.) This supervision would be more stringent than the current systems and could include curfews, restitution payments, and daily contact with probation officers.
When the mandated supervision period was up the PRB would hold another hearing to determine whether the offender could be released from supervision. The criteria would be spelled out by the Sex Offender Management Board, a group set up in 1997 to recommend ways to treat offenders that’s chaired by Simpson and made up of representatives from the DOC, the state Department of Human Services, DCFS, and law enforcement agencies, as well as judges, victims’ rights advocates, attorneys, and psychologists.
O’Brien thinks all the new measures in her bill are justified. “Sex offenders do not rehabilitate easily or well,” she says.
“These are sexual predators, remember. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for them.” Nor do victims’ rights advocates. “A sex offender who’s returned to a free society is given a second chance,” says Polly Poskin of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which backs the bill. She adds that part of getting another chance is being supervised. “This is America. We believe in safety and freedom of movement. In those rights the victims of sex offenses should have as much access as the offenders, and that’s what we’re talking about here.”
Not everyone is so sanguine. Barry Leavitt, former president of the Illinois chapter of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, generally favors the changes but says, “We need to refine the measures here between those who have a high risk and a low risk of reoffending. One size fits all would be a mistake.” Davison agrees. He says lifetime supervision makes sense “for somebody who has multiple victims over the years, but consider the 22-year-old who has sex with a 15-year-old and is convicted of statutory rape. Should he face scrutiny for life? When the criminal justice system takes a cookie-cutter approach it’s not useful.”
“Treatment can be effective for many people,” says Linda Grossman. “It can reduce someone’s chances of recidivating. We can follow and measure a person and apply an end point. Lifetime supervision, be it in a correctional or treatment sense, doesn’t allow for an end point that is practicable.”
Madigan hasn’t responded to repeated requests for comment, but her press secretary, Melissa Merz, wrote in an E-mail that Madigan made lifetime supervision a campaign issue because the “protection of women and children” is a top priority with her. Merz also said that Madigan’s supervision plan drew from “research into creative, innovative ways to address the significant problem of recidivism among sex offenders” and noted that treatment is a key component of supervision because “sex offenders–particularly serial offenders–suffer from mental disorders.” She said the O’Brien-Hoffman bill allowed for ending supervision if an offender “has made progress in treatment in conjunction with other safeguards to ensure that any risk from him is reduced.”
Simpson says the PRB would be given “additional information on treatment” and would take the recommendations of probation officers and people providing treatment into account. “If Colorado is any indication,” he says, “sometimes the parole board there agrees with the recommendation, and sometimes it doesn’t. The board’s no rubber stamp.”
As a tough-on-crime measure, the O’Brien-Hoffman bill would normally encounter little opposition in the general assembly, but these days cost is an issue. Colorado, one of 11 states that have a lifetime-supervision provision, has spent an estimated $3.2 million a year extra for parole, probation, and treatment expenses, along with $8 million for new prison construction. O’Brien says she was told that Illinois might have to spend double what Colorado has–a troubling prospect, she says, in hard economic times. She plans to hold committee hearings on the bill in August, and she says she welcomes testimony from offenders, “especially those who’ve really made an effort to turn their lives around.” She expects the bill to come up for a vote next spring.
Larry says he can understand why people would support lifetime supervision. “I’m a parent as well as an offender,” he says, “and though my daughters are both grown, I understand the concern here from a parent’s perspective. There are people out there, like I was, who are waiting to groom their next victim.”
Yet he still feels the bill would treat many sex offenders too harshly. “Offenders like me want to recover–we’re trying to do so,” he says. “The process will always be part of my life. I know that. Drug addicts and alcoholics have the same thing–and you think they don’t hurt people? Bullshit. How many people do drunk drivers kill? Lots–and they aren’t on lifetime supervision. If you put everybody convicted of a felony on lifetime supervision I’d fear for society. Where would it all end?” He pauses, then says, referring to Madigan, “I hope for crap in your closet, lady.”
Last November, Larry was laid off from his construction-tool job when the company downsized. He now spends his days reading up on other firms, looking for a job–he’s now hoping to find one with UPS–and networking. He isn’t using the Internet; he’d subscribed to a Web service, even though having it violated his probation, but he dropped it after he realized he was too tempted to surf porn sites. He’s making do financially; he figures his army pension and savings will last him a year.
He got a second blow in November when his father died. “When Larry left home in the first place he was not even a man yet,” says Greta. “After Larry’s foul-up he and dad were closer than they’d ever been. Perhaps it was because of what dad himself had once done with our sister.”
Larry has also grown close to his older daughter, now a single mother living in Utah. As a child, she and her father never talked much. “But now we talk about everything,” she says. “If we’re mad at each other we put it right on the table.” Three years ago she pleaded guilty to possession of a stolen credit card. “Back then my dad was very upset with me,” she says. Now they commiserate about how hard it is as felons to find jobs.
For several months Larry has been attending Sunday and weekday services, as well as Bible-study classes, at the evangelical Crossroads Community Church. Some people in the church know his history, most don’t. “I feel God has forgiven me,” he says. “I’m developing a personal relationship with him, and members of the congregation have accepted me.” Recently he began training as a “Stephen minister,” a layperson who helps other congregants in crisis as Saint Stephen once helped the needy. At a Sunday service in March the speaker talked of God, family, and love, then the music director led the congregation in the hymn “Trading My Sorrows.” The lyrics were projected on a large screen, and Larry sang along quietly. “I’m trading my sorrows. I’m trading my shame. I’m laying them down, for the joy of the Lord.”
Larry has decided to pursue a master’s in counseling at National-Louis University, where he earned an undergraduate business degree three years ago. He starts classes in July and hopes to become a graduate assistant. “There’s a part of me that says that’s a good idea,” says Davison, “but I’ve also told Larry, ‘I don’t know if you’ll get licensed.'” The state Department of Professional Regulation doesn’t outright forbid licensing a felon, but it could deny an application if that were the recommendation of a board of professionals.
Until last summer Larry still saw and sporadically went out with Joan. “A friend of mine used to say, ‘Dating is fuck you and good night,'” he says. “That’s where my thinking was too, but there’s been a major shift in my perspective. Am I going to hurt a person I love because all I want is an orgasm? With Joan now, we could sit down and talk, and I was able to focus on her completely.” But he says she decided she didn’t want to see him anymore, explaining that she was worried about what it said to Laura and to her younger daughter, who’s now a teenager.
Larry has never contacted Laura–the conditions of his parole prohibit it. But he hopes his judge will one day give him permission to apologize to her, in person though with a supervisor. “I’d tell her she was not to blame at all for this,” he says. “It was because I was immature sexually and not an adult. I would tell her I’m absolutely sorry for what I did to her physically and mentally. What I did was a terrible thing.” Tears fill his eyes. “This makes me ashamed. But deep down I feel I’m a good person. I think I don’t have to be perfect. All I can hope for is that I don’t offend again.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Wesley Bedrosian.