How A Trailer Park Becomes A Secret Haven For Sex Offenders
"Sex Offender Trailer Park" sounds like either a great horror movie, a middling rock band, or a horrible sitcom. In real life, neighborhoods like that do exist, because of a problem society has no goddamned idea how to solve. In many cities, laws keep registered sex offenders from living anywhere near where children gather, which means there are only tiny areas where they can live. We talked to James, who owned a trailer park that became known as a haven for the people society would prefer not to deal with at all.
Laws Against Sex Offenders Have Created An Unexpected, Stupid Problem
Most of you probably don't disagree with states banning people on sex offender registries from living anywhere children hang out (and if you do, you probably don't say so in public). Those laws are in theory reserved for those supposedly most likely to reoffend, including violent sex offenders and child molesters, while a bunch of caveats and sub-clauses spare people who aren't as much of a threat to society, like 18-year-olds who dated 16-year-olds. The laws leave a bunch of parents sleeping easier. But how do they work in practice?
Well, when you keep offenders from living 1,000 feet (or 2,000 feet) from playgrounds, schools, public parks, and even bus stops, you block off a whole lot of space. One programmer had a go at mapping what areas of Detroit are off-limits:
James says that one of his residents showed him a map like that for his city. "The only areas the rings didn't encompass," he says, "were really rich areas he couldn't afford, really poor areas where he was afraid he might die, and the ocean." It's actually worse in Milwaukee, a city of half a million people in which the entire map is blacked out save for 55 addresses. In Denver, a judge struck down these laws when it turned out they left effectively no livable space at all.
Offenders look to the few areas they're allowed to choose, and when landlords realize sex offenders are eyeing them, they generally respond by releasing the hounds. It's not legal to discriminate that way, but it's easy to vet potential tenants by looking at your state registry and then rejecting anyone whose name is there. "They can claim 'poor credit,'" says James, "'not good references,' 'we already rented it,' or another excuse." Out of options, maybe they could flee the urban center altogether for some distant county (states have been accused of making rural areas a dumping ground for sex offenders), but unless there's a job waiting for them elsewhere, they aren't leaving.
So what then? Do they simply go homeless? Yeah, that happens, and on a large scale. And as much as some people might relish the thought of people like this having no roof over their heads, the whole point of the registry is to keep tabs on them, so thousands of transient roaming sex offenders should be the absolute last thing anyone wants. There's got to be some other solution. That's where people like James come in.
Sex Offenders Turn The Trailer Parks That Accept Them Into Safe Havens
James inherited his trailer park from his father, and before he owned it, he'd had no idea a huge chunk of the residents were sex offenders. As soon as he learned the truth, he set about researching the quickest and easiest way to kick them all out. "But then I met one who gave the rent check and thanked me for letting them stay there," he says. "Without the park, he said, he would have literally nowhere else to live nearby. And by 'nearby,' he meant 20 miles." James previously had vague plans of helping the less fortunate, but nobody was going to make an inspirational movie about this shit.
Plus, he says, keeping them on had a bonus: "Sex offenders always pay on time." That's not a joke. They're required to find jobs as part of their release conditions, which makes them a surer bet than a lot of other people in the trailer community. Sex offenders also made the neighborhood safer, ironically enough. Police knew how many high-risk people lived there, and responded by prioritizing the area when it came time for patrols. Oh yeah -- police were totally aware that James was running a sex offender commune. They welcomed the idea, and whenever they released a new inmate, someone in the department would unofficially suggest the trailer park as a possible place to live. Rental agencies knew too. So thanks to the grapevine, word got around, even without James putting up a neon sign saying "Sex offenders welcome!" Every time a vacancy opened in the park, there was a renter with a record eager to move in.
That's the thing: Everyone involved with the system knows that these people need a place to live, and that it's to everyone's benefit that they find one (including their victims!). But solutions must come under the table, unless you want to be seen as aiding predators. We have a long history of creating a broken system and then declaring the dysfunction to be part of the punishment. That's not how laws work! Or how they're supposed to work, at least.
Running The Park Had Complications -- Like Keeping Kids Out
So while there was no flashing sign in front of the park that said "Sex Offender Paradise. Free WiFi!" there was one that said "No Children Allowed." This wasn't a matter of law. The law says offenders can't live near specific public areas where children congregate, not that they can't be near any kid anywhere at any time. James put the rule in as a precaution. "It could have tempted them," he says. "No way was I allowing that."
Nonetheless, every so often, kids would come by on their bikes. They would get down and approach the park, because while the sign kept most families away, it was an absolute magnet for unsupervised Bart Simpson types. If James was around, he'd tell them to leave while most residents stayed huddled in their trailers. Then James would return and hear a bunch of nervous sex offenders asking, "Are the kids gone yet?" They were convinced that any contact whatsoever with kids could be used to send them back to prison.
But not everyone in the park was a fan of the child ban, because not everyone in the park was a sex offender. In fact, more than half of the population were regular folks, a good portion of whom were elderly and really wanted their grandchildren to come visit. "It couldn't happen," says James. "Having a sleepover at Grandma's could have turned into a huge deal very quickly."
James rented to people who weren't sex offenders because some of the trailers were too expensive for your average ex-con. He let all new renters know exactly what the situation was in the place, and incredibly, he found plenty of non-criminals OK with living there. Sometimes, even families with kids wanted to move in (we guess the park had an absolute killer location), and James would have to find an excuse to reject them. He says he never had to really push the issue; as we mentioned earlier, there are usually legit reasons to reject an applicant.
The Way We Treat Offenders Post-Release Helps No One
Though James sees many of his residents as people who made one mistake and should now be forgiven, we're guessing a lot of you aren't too broken up over the pains experienced by sex criminals. These people did evil stuff. They deserve to be punished.
But here's what you have to remember: Restrictions on sex offenders aren't designed to be a punishment. The Supreme Court actually ruled on this. If registries were a punishment, they would be unconstitutional (and when they're judged to be punitive, courts keep striking them down). The offenders already got the full punishment that we decided they deserved when they went to jail. Everything afterward is in theory put in place to make them live in normal society without assaulting anybody.
Yet the public keeps taking it upon themselves to go after released sex offenders, which rarely results in anything good. Trailer parks like James' see nightly vandalism, with everything from spray-painted messages to sacks of dead rats stuck in a clothes dryer. James recalls one resident who received regular verbal abuse from others in town. After he fled one store to get away from the people hounding him, his tormentors tailed him by car, yelling curses until he lost them by steering into a random side street. The guy then drove back to his trailer and didn't leave for a month.
"He had other people buy him groceries," says James. "He quit his job." He didn't get another job for six months, and then he never went outside, other than commuting there and back. "He had several mental health issues, and that day pushed him over the edge," says James. "It broke him." You can hate the crime all you want, but after the criminal's been punished, you've got to reintegrate them back into the world. "Because if you don't, and take it to the extreme, you can destroy someone who was trying to become right again."
Or maybe you're fine with destroying criminals, so long as it keeps them from offending again. Certainly, any future victim would suffer way more than what these guys are going through. The question is: Do any of the measures actually protect future victims? We haven't specifically studied the effects of hot spinning dryer rodents, but from what we have studied, it doesn't look good.
The basic requirement that offenders check in with police does reduce their chance of reoffending, says the data. But state sex offender registries, along with the associated restrictions, don't appear to lower the chances at all. Public notification through mailers or the internet -- which leads to stuff like landlords discriminating and vigilante car chases -- appears to increase recidivism. The theory is that when you make a sex offender a pariah and make their life suck in general, they're more likely to reoffend because they have nothing to lose.
Yes, Some Of Them Relapse
One of James' residents, a child molester, was pretty much always drunk. He came home one time after being stopped by police, bragging to the rest of the park about how he'd escaped a DUI: "I demanded a blood test, and they let me go!" When police called the park about the resident sometime later, James figured the guy's drinking had finally landed him a violation. But then the police demanded a key to the man's trailer, saying they had a warrant. "All of this over a DUI?" asked James. No, said the policewoman. The resident had assaulted another kid. Later, it happened again, with another resident.
Overall, you can expect 13-35 percent of sex offenders to get caught breaking a law within 15 years of release, depending on what sort of sex crime they originally did. That's a big number. But it's actually dramatically below the recidivism rate of ex-prisoners in general and much less than what people think it is. People assume that most sex offenders will rape again, basing this "knowledge" on the villains seen in every episode of Law & Order: SVU. You can argue that maybe far more could be offending without getting caught, and of course that's impossible to know, but also remember how closely they're being monitored.
Reoffending hurts everyone, says James, even beyond the obvious effects on the new victim. "The other non-offender residents think less of everyone as a whole now ... The other offenders get mad at him or worry that it might happen to them and call in for more treatment. And of course the town used it both times as a crusade to 'Get them all out.'" After that second relapse, someone ran for city council promising to pass a law to kick the sex offender residents out. He won.
In the end, no law was necessary. After two years in charge, James sold the park. The relapses and the overall hassle had gotten to him. The final straw was when another family applied to move in and James couldn't bring himself to dig up an excuse to turn them down and keep the place running.
"The park's gone now," he says. "They tore it down some years ago." In its spot is a supermarket, and the residents have all left for elsewhere. "I can't tell you where they went. But I hope they found another haven."
Evan V. Symon is a journalist and interview finder guy for the Personal Experiences section at Cracked. Have an awesome job or experience you'd like to see in an article? Then post us up here or here!
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