How Georgia’s Sex Offender Registry Traps People in Debt and Homelessness

I was arrested in 2011 after engaging in sex work to survive and later forced to register as a sex offender. Since then, social stigma, footage laws, and crushing monthly court debts have made it difficult to get back on my own two feet and succeed after prison.

This photo shows a man's hand holding onto a chain-link fence. His face is not shown.
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How Georgia’s Sex Offender Registry Traps People in Debt and Homelessness

I was arrested in 2011 after engaging in sex work to survive and later forced to register as a sex offender. Since then, social stigma, footage laws, and crushing monthly court debts have made it difficult to get back on my own two feet and succeed after prison.

In 2011, after six years of engaging in sex work to survive, I was arrested and charged with, at age 19, pimping, pandering, and exploiting a minor who was over 16 years old. In 2012, I was convicted and sentenced to 30 years, with 14 to be served in custody, and forced to register as a sex offender. As my public defender so appropriately described it, I was depicted by the media as a sort of Guido the Killer Pimp and accused—I maintain falsely—of terrible acts befitting only a terrible person.

It’s well known that police target sex workers, criminalizing their means of survival and contributing to sex offense-related convictions and statistics. In particular, police target BIPOC and LGBTQ sex workers—especially the many disenfranchised, ostracized, and homeless teens and young people engaged in the trade for survival. These sorts of arrest patterns by law enforcement only act to control bodies, cater to the public’s hunger for spectacle, and pad conviction rates, all while furthering a general rhetoric of perversion and predation. 

No one seemed interested in the facts of my case, nor in my long history of childhood sexual abuse and compulsory sex work—least of all the police and the media. I didn’t know at that time that I was fulfilling a narrative around crime and sex offenses. Nor did I know about the vicious re-incarceration cycle of the registry and potentially lifelong monetary peonage to the criminal (in)justice system.  

But I do unfortunately know one thing now: Sex offender registries are debt traps that cause mass homelessness and mass incarceration. After years estranged from society and divorced from a solid employment history, the cost of rebuilding a life from rubble and debris is exorbitant (housing, furniture, vehicle, insurance, food, clothing, medications and medical expenses, etc). And that’s without factoring in registry and parole/probation-related costs.

In Georgia, a first-time technical violation by someone on the sex-offender registry is a felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Under the state’s recidivism statute, a second violation triggers a 30-year prison sentence and there is no parole eligibility. It is so difficult to secure housing with a sex offense conviction that the outskirts of at least four Georgia cities have encampments populated by people on the registry. Those placed on the list can apply to be removed 10 years after they’ve completed their full sentences, including probation.

I know the statistics and have lived the struggle. So when I became eligible for work release at the beginning of this summer, I put in my application immediately. It was urgent that my placement in a transitional center (TC) be completed so I could start earning money as quickly as possible. A transitional center is a residential recovery house run by the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC). Prisoners within 15 months of their parole or maximum release date can apply for placement in a TC, where they may have their own clothes and leave the facility each day for work release. 

To apply, I had to send character references to my institutional case managers and higher-ups at the GDC—I took care to make sure the documents arrived at just the right moment to keep me at the top of the pile. But in September my application was denied; I was told I couldn’t be placed on work release while still receiving gender-affirming treatment I’d won through litigation.

I was panicked when I found that the GDC won’t assist me in best situating myself for a meaningful and successful reentry. The GDC will turn me over to the Department of Community Supervision, which will commence trying to break me, both financially and mentally. As a citizen on the sex offender registry, I’ll be paying for my ankle monitor, mandatory treatment classes, monthly urinalysis tests, biannual polygraph tests, and of course my parole officer’s valuable time. These charges will accumulate to at least $400 to $800 per month. If I cannot keep up with these fees and with rent simultaneously, it doesn’t matter which bills I choose to pay. 

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It’s terribly easy to land on the sex offender registry in this country. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that children are accused of committing roughly a quarter of all known sexual offenses and more than one-third of all sexual offenses against kids. At this time, there are more than 200,000 people on the registry for conduct that occurred when they were a minor. Earlier this year, Tracy Alvord, the executive director of the Georgia Sexual Offender Registration Review Board, stated that more than 30,000 people are registered with the board. 

According to a 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated people are roughly 10 times as likely to experience homelessness as members of the general population. But sex offender registries only make this issue worse. Returning citizens who must register find themselves squeezed by draconian, restrictive “footage laws” that limit the places we can even consider living. Sex offenders in Georgia are not able to work within 1,000 feet of public parks, schools, childcare facilities, or any other places where minors are known to congregate. Law enforcement will sometimes even prohibit registered persons from working in restaurants. Multiple studies have linked sex-offender registries to increased rates of homelessness.

I was released on parole in 2018, but within a few months, I found myself back in custody for failure to register as a sex offender. I had a decent place to live, a car, and a full-time job as a server. All of my pertinent details were registered with the local sheriff’’s department and my parole officer. However, the cost of living combined with the cost of supervision and complying with the registry was making me juggle bills (paying for the ankle monitor or the lights; paying for rent or my polygraph; paying for gas or my urinalysis). And there was absolutely no mercy or accommodation from my parole officer. 

I needed a second job, direly, and not for petty pay. I needed some serious money. Every single place I wanted to work—and that wanted to hire me—was turned down by the sheriff’s department and by parole because it was too close to prohibited places for people on the registry. Finally, I had enough. I wasn’t going to be homeless again—been there, done that before. So, in late March 2018, I accepted a job at an animal hospital in Columbus, Georgia, without formally reporting the job to the state. I was arrested after working there for almost two months because the animal hospital was about 730 feet from a daycare, rather than a solid 1,000. What difference does the state think the extra 200 feet would make for a person determined to sexually offend? I was working at the animal hospital because I was determined to survive, to make something of my life, and to redeem myself from my past. Instead, I got another criminal charge—and one step closer to a life sentence—all because I’d failed to log a second job I’d taken on to pay the fees the state had imposed on me.

Research suggests that registries are ineffective at deterring new crimes and may even lead to greater rates of recidivism. Criminal convictions and placement on the registry impact credit scores, employment opportunities, housing accessibility, and in some cases admission to institutions of higher education. Those issues don’t even factor in social stigma, discrimination, potentially being doxed, and moral panic from others in society. Rather than reducing crime, studies suggest registries instead increase crime rates, due to the employment and housing instability they cause. 

Various studies have found that people who are convicted of sex offenses are among the least likely to repeat offend. In 2019, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report analyzing a group of people formerly incarcerated for rape or sexual assault. Over a nine-year period, only 7.7 percent of those studied were rearrested for a second rape or sexual assault. If those on sex-offender registries do reoffend, they are statistically far more likely to be rearrested for nonsexual crimes, suggesting that employment and financial stability become far harder for people once placed on a list. The issue is that data must fight against popular opinion.

Many people may feel that these collateral consequences are justified. Many also see the registry as a rightful continuation of the punishment process. But it’s important to remember that registries were intended to protect the public—not to perpetually punish the people on them. Citizens are being financially and socially harmed in perpetuity because of a broken, harm-relishing system.

I, like many in similar shoes, am simply terrified of the future and what it means for me as a person on the sex offender registry. I worry about securing a safe place to live and a decent-paying job, about how I will restart my life and do something meaningful, beautiful, and redemptive with it. I am arguably not the best person, but am certainly better than my worst moments. Part of the rhetoric, the sort of sales pitch, around incarceration and punishment (and the criminal legal system at large) is that there is and must be rehabilitation. The offender registry—and its endless stream of debts—isn’t letting me get another chance.

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