This week’s New Yorker contains possibly the most devastating article I’ve ever read: Sarah Stillman‘s, “The List,” subtitled, “When juveniles are found guilty of sexual misconduct, the sex-offender registry can be a life sentence.”
Stillman calmly details just how shocking and sadistic our sex offender laws are, from arresting tweens who played doctor, to treatment that’s a mish-mash of pop psychology and medieval torture. For instance: One treatment involves measuring an offender’s response to pornography with a “penile plethysmograph” — a.k.a. the “peter meter.” (See below.) Do we really want our government measuring the circumference of people’s penises?
Stillman also tells the stories of several young people betrayed by the laws ostensibly enacted to make our children “safer.” Below I’ve excerpted one. You’ve read about another one of Stillman’s subjects here on this blog. But I hope you will read the entire article. You may never be the same. I’m hoping our lawmakers won’t either, which is why at the bottom of this post I have a link to a Change.org petition asking state legislatures to decriminalize young people who have sex with or sext each other. Meantime, here’s the story of Anthony Metts:
In July of 2003, not long after his senior year of high school, Anthony Metts got a summer job at the lakeside camp where he’d once been a camper. Metts, who grew up in Midland, Texas, was adopted; at school, where he was one of its few Mexican-Americans, he’d been taunted for being a “wetback.” But things were different at the camp, and as a counsellor he was in heaven. He ran archery sessions and visits to the Blob, the camp’s famous floating trampoline. Then, one afternoon, a Texas Ranger and a Midland cop arrived at the camp and asked to speak with him. After driving him to a local police station, the officers told him that they were investigating the illegal sale of items from a Midland Police Department evidence room, and an informant had tossed out his name as a potential source of information.
Officers noted that Metts had been keenly coöperative. But he knew nothing about the theft, which, it later emerged, had been perpetrated by a rogue employee of the police department. Eager to get a confession, and seemingly convinced of his association with the crime, the officers pressed him on another tip they’d heard: Hadn’t Metts been hanging out with younger girls the previous year? Was it possible that he’d had sex with them?
Metts told them that when he was eighteen he dated a girl who was three years younger. And he’d also had a brief sexual relationship with a girl more than three years younger, whom he met during his junior year of high school, when she was a freshman. Metts helped the officers proofread his statement, oblivious of its significance. When the officers turned the information over to the Midland District Attorney’s Office, the D.A. filed two felony indictments for sexual assault of a child, based on the age-of-consent laws in Texas at the time. (A third charge of sexual assault of a child was raised, then dropped.)
Consent was irrelevant—in fact, impossible—before the law. Not too far away, in the town of Caldwell, a young man had been convicted, at nineteen, for a consensual relationship with a girl who was four years younger, and who later became his wife. Metts’s case was messier; it involved more than one relationship, and he’d left a trail of adolescent misbehavior—speeding tickets, pot, and pranks. His lawyer told him that he would face life in prison if the case went to trial. He decided to take a plea deal: a suspended sentence and ten years of probation.
Metts, who was twenty-one by then, read the terms of his post-plea life. For the next decade, he’d be barred from alcohol and the Internet; from entering the vicinity of schools, parks, bus stops, malls, and movie theatres; and from living within a thousand feet of a “child-safety zone.” A mugshot of his curly-haired, round-cheeked face would appear for life on the Texas sex-offender registry, beside the phrase “Sexual Assault of a Child.” And he would have to start sex-offender treatment.
The treatment plan was extensive. He was told to write up a detailed sexual history, and then to discuss it with a room full of adults, some of whom had repeatedly committed child assaults. On his first day of class, he recalls, he entered a group circle beside a dentist who had violated several patients while they were under anesthesia. To graduate, he would have to narrate his “assaults” in detail: “How many buttons on her shirt did you unbutton?”
The plan also included a monthly polygraph (a hundred and fifty dollars) and a computerized test that measured how long his eyes lingered on deviant imagery (three hundred and twenty-five dollars). He would also have to submit to a “penile plethysmograph,” or PPG. According to documents produced by the state of Texas, the PPG—known jokingly to some patients as a “peter meter”—is “a sophisticated computerized instrument capable of measuring slight changes in the circumference of the penis.” A gauge is wrapped around the shaft of the penis, with wires hooked up to a laptop, while a client is presented with “sexually inappropriate” imagery and, often, “deviant” sexual audio. Metts would be billed around two hundred dollars per test.
When Metts balked at what felt to him like technological invasions—not least the prospect of having a stranger measure his penis—he was jailed for ten days. A new round of weekly therapy sessions (thirty dollars for group, and fifty dollars for one-on-one) then commenced.
In Midland, Anthony Metts continued to struggle with treatment. He acknowledged that his behavior as a teen had been reckless. He told me, “Do I think I needed some sort of therapy? Yes. But do I think I needed sex-offender therapy? Hell, no.” Still, the rules left few options. Eventually, he agreed to acknowledge how he’d “groomed” his “victims”: in one case, they’d gone to dinner, a movie, and—for a Halloween date—to a local haunted house.
His life, meanwhile, increasingly felt like a series of derailments. He had been fired from a job he loved at a local radio station when an advertiser learned of his status on the registry and protested. The best gig he could find was in Midland’s oil fields, working dispatch. His mother began to worry about whether he’d make it through a decade of probation. She recalled the judge’s warning, on the day that Metts took the plea: “It’s a good deal if you make it, or else it’s a pretty lousy deal if you don’t.”
Metts settled into his new life in the oil fields, reluctantly accommodating an array of strictures that he regarded as pointless. Each Halloween, for instance, he reported to the county probation office with dozens of other local sex offenders, and was held from 6 to 10 P.M. and shown movies like “Iron Man 2,” until trick-or-treating was over. “If someone’s that dangerous that they need to be locked up, what about all of the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year?” he asked me.
In 2006, he fell in love with a deputy sheriff’s daughter. One night, he took her out to his favorite Italian place in Odessa, ordered two steaks with risotto, and arranged for the waiter to bring out a dessert menu that read, among the à-la-carte selections, “Will you marry me?” She said yes, and a baby girl soon followed. “My daughter was a blessing and a miracle to me,” Metts told me. But it also introduced him to a troubling new aspect of his life on the registry.
Metts, then twenty-four, learned that he wouldn’t be allowed to see his daughter. His status banned him from living with her, and thus with his wife. Still, Metts sneaked visits, breaking the rules. His mother, Mary Helen, obtained formal certification as a chaperon so that he could see his daughter in her presence, spending Saturday mornings by the duck pond or having brunch at Fuddruckers. Eventually, as his daughter grew, Metts says that his probation officer granted him approval for simple, unchaperoned outings, like crafting trips to Hobby Lobby, with a stop for doughnuts.
One night, a former classmate saw Metts buying a sandwich at Walmart and shouted a slur at him; she’d seen his face on the registry for “Sexual Assault of a Child.” Rattled, he went to Buffalo Wild Wings to down a beer, and got busted. Metts had a record of technical violations, so a judge ordered him to wear an electronic ankle bracelet, administered by a private monitoring company that charged several hundred dollars a month. The device would notify the authorities of any infractions—stepping too close to a mall, park, bar, or church, or leaving the county without permission.
The circumference of permissible life kept shrinking. “A flame inside of me just went out,” Metts told me. In the darkness that followed, he recalls, “I hermited myself.” He moved back in with his parents, to save money for his child and for his electronic-monitoring bills. Most days, he’d drive straight home from work to play Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on his Xbox. Within a year and a half, he had gained a hundred pounds. He didn’t want his scarlet letter to further affect his wife and child; the couple got divorced.
In the eighth year of his ten-year probation term, Metts decided to reënter the world. He returned to college, began to party, and made friends for the first time in years. On a warm afternoon in May during his final year of probation, he invited some of those new friends over to his parents’ swimming pool. He tossed back several beers and took a dip. He’d failed to charge his ankle bracelet properly, and the battery died at around 5 P.M. Shortly before midnight, his probation officer arrived at his door: she’d be filing to revoke his probation. A few weeks later, Metts was led into a courtroom in hand-cuffs, leg cuffs, and a chain around his waist connecting them. “I looked like Hannibal Lecter without the mask,” he told me. The judge’s name sounded familiar: she had helped prosecute his original case. (The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has since agreed to consider whether her involvement in the earlier proceedings disqualified her from presiding over Metts’s fate.)
The prosecutor pushed for two years in prison, arguing that the long list of Metts’s technical infractions was “not just a fluke . . . not just ‘Oops, I messed up.’ ” Metts’s attorney urged alternatives that would be less costly for taxpayers. None of Metts’s violations, he noted, had any connection to the original charges of sexual assault of a child. A typical mistake was failing to charge his ankle bracelet’s battery. The judge took some time to think it over. The next morning, she sentenced Metts to ten years in prison.
This past July, I drove around Midland, Texas, trying to find the girls—now women—who were involved in Anthony Metts’s case. Having no luck with doorbells, I left notes, and two days later I got a call from one of them. “I never wanted Anthony to be prosecuted,” she told me. “It was a consensual relationship—the kind when you’re young and you’re stupid. My mom knew about it. We’d go on dates, drive around, hang out.” She was shocked to learn of Metts’s fate: his nine-plus years of probation, his current decade of incarceration. “I told [law enforcement] that I didn’t feel like he should have to be prosecuted,” she said.
That same month, I made plans to visit Metts in prison, at Fort Stockton. For nearly two years, I’d routinely spoken with him by phone. But now Anthony’s calls had mysteriously stopped. His mother told me that he had been assaulted by two inmates after they took his I.D. number and found out that he was a sex offender. He was hospitalized and then moved to solitary confinement.
Several weeks later, he was transferred to a remote penitentiary in deep East Texas, eight hours away, built on farmland cleared by former slaves and now maintained by prison labor. When I drove there for an interview, guards shuffled Metts, tall and monkish in his prison whites, into a small booth with a partition between us. The night before, he learned that he’d lost a pending appeal in his case. His eyes were puffy from tears and sleeplessness.
“I thought, by the time we finally met, we’d be on the rooftop at the Hilton,” he said, laughing halfheartedly. For most of the next four hours, he spoke of how he planned to get through the coming decade. “In my mind, I don’t live here,” he told me. He spends his days reading business and life-style magazines and making plans to return to his daughter, who is now eight. “I look forward to being the dad she deserves, the dad I feel I am,” he said. “I miss reading her stories. Getting doughnuts with her, helping her with her homework, brushing her hair. Everything. Everything.”
He began to sob. “It’s a son of a bitch,” he said. Eventually, guards came over and recuffed his hands. After he’d been shuffled back to segregation, it occurred to me that if Anthony Metts serves out his full sentence he will have spent more than twenty years—nearly half his life—under state supervision.
Okay, clearly allowing this type of thing to happen in our country is an outrage. And it all stems from the single, wrong belief that some consensual sex or sexting between young people above the age of puberty (each state decides exactly what it will and won’t tolerate) is evil and deserving of punishment. Enormous punishment.
If you’d like to protest this, here’s my petition. And meanwhile, spread the word. – L.