Branded For Life
By Peter Korn
Michael W. understands the journey Oregon State University baseball pitcher Luke Heimlich finds himself on.
Hate him, embrace him, fear him or demonize him, but Clackamas County resident Michael W. understands.
Now 37, Michael W. (whose name has been changed here to protect his identity) has been on the same journey since he was 15.
Heimlich was among the top college baseball players in the country last season, primed to lead OSU into the College World Series and become a high draft pick for some Major League Baseball team, until local media discovered he was a registered sex offender.
That revelation created a firestorm. Heimlich did not accompany OSU to the World Series and all 30 major league teams passed on drafting him and offering him a lucrative contract to play professionally.
Some online commentators supported Heimlich, saying he had paid his debt to society and should be allowed to move on.
Others felt differently. One post: "I believe in good and evil and people that molest little kids are evil."
When he was 15, Michael W. says he pleaded guilty to a charge of first-degree child molestation after "exploring my sexuality" with a 10-year-old boy at the home of a family friend. He was sentenced to two years of probation, sex offender treatment and community service. And he was ordered to register as a sex offender, with the requirement that he re-register every year within 10 days of his birthday.
Michael acknowledges that what he did was wrong, and truly harmed his victim. He is certain, however, that he would never do such a thing again. At 37, though he's enjoyed a moderately successful career as a financial analyst, he knows he got lucky — his last two employers never performed background checks that would have revealed his status as a sex offender.
But reading about Luke Heimlich's public shaming in recent weeks, and the fact that Heimlich may have forfeited his baseball career, reminds Michael of why every year on his birthday he gets anxious and paranoid and sometimes starts to drink. It reminds him, he says, that society doesn't believe he is to be trusted, and maybe doesn't want him to enjoy a stable and successful life.
In Michael's mind, continuing to have him register as a sex offender isn't about keeping other people safe. At this point, it only makes sense as punishment — a message.
Count Max Williams among those who aren't surprised that a number of people don't want to see Heimlich succeed at a professional baseball career. Williams was executive director of the Oregon Department of Corrections between 2004 and 2012. He was in charge of Oregon prison inmates, and he listened, sometimes with dismay, to Oregonians express their attitudes about felons released after serving their prison terms.
"We say, as public policy, now this person has to go out and be a better citizen, and they get a second chance," Williams says. "But do we mean it? As a matter of public sentiment and a number of policies we operate under, we don't really mean it."
That belief might be rooted in substance. Nearly seven in 10 U.S. felons are re-arrested for a new crime within three years of their release from incarceration. But nobody knows for certain what that number would look like if more resources were devoted to rehabilitation, and attitudes toward released felons were more accepting.
Most felons, upon release, find their job opportunities extremely limited to fields such as construction, truck driving and telemarketing. A few years ago, ex-cons in many states could not get food stamps or apartments in taxpayer-subsidized buildings (sex offenders and arsonists still need not apply). The door has been opened just a bit for many jobs that require state licensure — felons can ask that their applications be considered rather than accept blanket rejections. But you won't find many felons in nursing school.
When he was in charge of Oregon prisons, Max Williams says about 10 percent of his department's budget went to paying off the debt incurred for the building of new prisons, and about 4 percent was spent on programs for prisoner rehabilitation.
Williams recalls that while he directed Oregon's prison system, the Coffee Creek women's prison started a cosmetology program so inmates could train for careers as hairdressers. Ironically, Oregon law at the time required cosmetologists to be licensed by the state, which meant released inmates never could actually get a license to practice what they were learning.
Williams, now executive president of the Oregon Community Foundation, can't figure out how society is served by keeping women felons from becoming hairstylists and manicurists. Add on the supervision fees and court fees that leave most ex-convicts in debt upon release.
"If you do the crime, you are to be held appropriately accountable under the law," Williams says. "For me the question is what happens after they've paid that debt? We almost guarantee them a life of poverty. We've created a whole new class of enhanced poor people."
As for Luke Heimlich, Williams wasn't surprised all 30 major league teams chose to pass on drafting a potentially valuable pitcher.
"In the world we live in today, deciding you're going to be the team to employ somebody who is a registered sex offender? It's like Typhoid Mary," he says.
In the course of his lifetime, Williams says, he's seen women and gays make incredible strides in being accepted as equals by society. Not so for the men and women for whom he used to take responsibility.
It's still socially acceptable to discriminate against felons and even to make jokes about them, Williams notes. A joke about an inmate being assaulted in the prison shower? "It's a tagline in comic routines," he says.
It's also a far cry from compassion.
"In our minds (felons) have lost something by violating the social contract, and it's not culturally acceptable to us. It's as though they've lost all their human rights, and we treat them like that," he says.
For the past 12 years, Portland police officer Bridget Sickon has maintained something of an unscientific barometer for measuring public attitudes toward sex offenders. Sickon heads the police bureau's sex offender registration detail. Her job consists of keeping tabs on sex offenders in Portland, which can mean tracking down offenders who haven't registered and trying to help others find places to live and work. She keeps a list of apartment buildings that will rent to sex offenders, and local businesses that will consider them for jobs.
"The list is shrinking," she says.
That tells Sickon that the stigma for sex offenders isn't fading. And while Sickon is sympathetic to felons who made one-time teen or young adult mistakes, she also understands why most people aren't willing to believe in redemption for sex offenders.
When she calls an employer about hiring a sex offender, Sickon consistently hears the same question. The employer doesn't want the details of the sex offender's crime, but he or she always want to know the age of the victim. Raping a woman at knifepoint seemingly doesn't carry the same stigma as molesting a child.
"What's important is the age," Sickon says. "That's where you go into that societal thinking that the most heinous thing you can do is sex-offending a child. That's more heinous than killing somebody."
Sickon has studied Portland's sex offenders and found that 85 percent of them victimized a minor.
After 12 years, Sickon says she's become pretty adept at determining which of the sex offenders she oversees are unlikely to do it again, and which are "hard-wired" and likely to re-offend. The problem, she says, is that even with all her experience, she estimates she can only predict which offender fits into which category about 70 percent of the time.
So in Sickon's mind, the problem isn't people's unwillingness to believe in rehabilitation. "It's more erring on the side of caution," she says. "It's normal to want to safeguard the people you love.
When responding to surveys, Americans consistently say they believe in rehabilitation, according to University of Cincinnati criminologist Ed Latessa. And in recent years some gains have been made in removing barriers for ex-cons.
In Oregon, Ban the Box legislation passed last year requires employers to give applicants a first interview before checking their criminal record. And some Oregon companies can get paid state incentives to hire ex-cons. But mostly, Latessa says, ex-cons lack what women and sexual minorities successfully used to make gains.
"Convicted felons don't have any political clout," Latessa says. "They're a powerless group."
Public safety is only part of the reason society puts up so many barriers for ex-cons, says ex-corrections director Williams. We believe in retribution, he notes, and it says so right in the Oregon Constitution. As for the idea that the United States was once a country full of compassion and open to second chances, it might be more myth than history, he adds.
"Have you ever watched a Western movie where there was a hanging?" Williams says. Most of the people in the crowd, he's noticed, are cheering.
Deena Castrejon keeps nine jailhouse mug shots taken when she was in her thirties on the wall behind her desk at Bridges To Change in Hillsboro. Today, the 46-year-old Castrejon, with her red pony tail and easy smile, mentors ex-convicts in recovery. In her teens and twenties she ran drugs for gangs.
Castrejon keeps the photos on display as a reminder of how far she's come and to show clients how much a person can change.
The dramatic change in Castrejon was at least partially inspired by how others viewed her, two people in particular.
The first was a prison guard she encountered when she was 31. "A guard asked me , 'How old are you?'" Castrejon recalls. I was 31. And he said, 'Oh, you'll never change.' And that stuck with me. I thought, how dare you. I'll never change. It planted some kind of seed in me."
But Castrejon's hurt and anger (she was sexually abused as a child) were hard to shake, even as she started recovery programs. At twelve-step meetings the rest of the alcoholics and addicts would be making bets on how long she'd last in recovery. But a man who owned a janitorial service and was also in recovery hired her and she stayed at that job nine years, eventually becoming operations director.
People's attitudes toward felons matter a great deal to the felons, Castrejon says. But in her world, fixed attitudes don't make sense because sometimes, the people you want to steer clear of are the very same people you want to protect.
Castrejon is a single mother of six children. Her eldest son, abused as a child by a neighbor, abused his sister and brothers as a ten year old. For years, Castrejon says, she was angry at her son. Then she began to recognize he was also a victim, not only of sex abuse, but also because he had spent most of his early years living with a mother who was a drug addict. Today that son is 30, ten years out of prison, married with a young son of his own, and in recovery. He runs a cleaning franchise purchased by his mother. The family cycle, maybe, is broken.
Castrejon transformed herself. One glance at the photos behind the desk of her angry, wasted earlier version makes that clear. But it took her until she was in her thirties, when she was finally ready. Studies show that most property criminals stop committing new crimes by their thirties, and most violent criminals stop by age 40.
But trying to keep most felons in prison until they age out of the desire or ability to commit new crimes is both unjust and financially unfeasible, in Castrejon's view. And it won't work for those who have been victims as well as offenders, she says. Which leaves one option.
"If we don't help them it keeps going on," she says.
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