Shady Court sits empty now, a sad reminder of the emptiness of the hearts of many who judged its residents solely on label rather than character. Shady Court was home to a dozen registered sex offenders barely a year ago. Thanks in large part to residency restrictions and intolerance of sexual offenders, those who carry the stigma of “sex offender” are left with few housing options upon release from prison or after sentencing. Sex offenses can range from rape and sodomy to offenses to urinating behind a bush or even consensual relations between teenagers; in Alabama, all register for life. With the closing of Shady Court, there are even fewer housing options.
I moved to Sheffield a year ago to be closer to my fiancée (I never liked living here before but I was willing to prove my love to my fiancée). Like many of the former residents at Shady Court, I am on the Public Sex Offender Registry. I am also a nationally known advocate for the rights of former offenders, working with groups like www.sosen.org in addition to running my own advocate site www.oncefallen.com. I even received a partial pardon in 2007 as recognition of my rehabilitation. My first order of business in Alabama was establishing a working relationship with John Starnes, owner of Shady Court.
My fiancée and I spoke with Mr. Starnes and his fiancée in September 2009. I wanted to work with Starnes because we both believe in rehabilitation. Starnes was holding meetings for sexual addiction, and cooperated with law enforcement to keep any potential troublemakers in check. We held similar goals of running halfway houses to help ex-offenders reintegrate successfully into society. Starnes had taken the vision one step further—he located a potential site for his halfway house, a quaint and isolated ranch outside the city limits, far from the complaining residents that surrounded Shady Court. Starnes was optimistic and working hard to bring his vision into reality.
By the time I had made my move to Alabama in October, everything had changed. Not long after my initial meeting with Starnes, backlash from the August 16, 2009 Times Daily article[i] shattered that optimism. Starnes and his fiancée began receiving late night telephone death threats. The city of Sheffield’s building inspectors were under pressure to shut down the dilapidated hotel. Someone even drove around the hotel in the dead of night, noting the layout of the place while discussing bombs, and subsequently posted the “findings” on Youtube[ii]. Churches denied assistance to anyone working or living at Shady Court. Despite working with Law enforcement in the past, the police did nothing to help. No one wanted to rent from a hotel flagged as a sex offender ghetto, and eventually Shady Court closed its doors. Most of the registrants simply moved to another part of town.
By the time I ran into Starnes a few months later, the dream had died. He moved to a new location and is selling the property. I understand his frustrations. I was targeted by my fiancée’s neighbors. A local crime blogger posted a picture of my ex-wife and with the suggestion to “tattoo” my forehead. The Times Daily forums filled with personal attacks, even individuals mocking my mother’s passing. My fiancée couldn’t handle the stress and walked away. The residents claim victory on both counts. They could not be further from the truth.
In 2003, the Colorado Department of Corrections published a study[iii] which found no correlation between residency restrictions and sex crimes. Furthermore, they found “Shared Living Arrangements,” much like the arrangement at Shady Court, actually decreased recidivism among high risk offenders. On the flip side, studies found instability in life, such as denial of housing and employment, increases recidivism[iv]. What does that mean? It means Sheffield residents destroyed something beneficial to society in the name of “NIMBYism” and possibly made their streets a little less safe. Sheffield is not alone; in June 2009, Huntsville shut down the Myrick Hotel[v], and in April 2010, Jefferson County passed an anti-clustering law specifically to target a halfway house run by Shiloni Ministries[vi].
Everything you have come to believe about sex offenders is a lie. Sex crimes have more to do with relationships rather than geography[vii]. Most sex crimes are committed by someone the person knows[viii], and most sex crime arrests are of first-time offenders[ix]. Sex offenders have the lowest rate of recidivism, which can be lowered even further with treatment, rehabilitation, and support options which include stable housing and employment[x]. Very few sex offenders are “pedophiles[xi].” High-profile kidnappings are extremely tragic but thankfully extremely rare (less than 115 in a nation with over 71 million children[xii]). Every myth about sex offenders we hold fast to fuels our thirst for vengeance. The current revenge-oriented system of justice has failed to prevent sex crimes because our approach counters the only effective methods of reducing sex crimes in our country.
Shady Court was a lowly program doing the work no one was willing or able to do. We chose revenge over reason. We cried out, “Not In My Back Yard!” The issue has gone nowhere. Despite the complaints and protests of Sheffield residents[xiii], sex offenders will continue to live in Sheffield. I still live here. Life goes on.
Soon I will leave an empty apartment to return to Cincinnati, my dreams of marriage as empty as the crumbling hotel and the dreams of a program that would have made a difference. It is quite possible another sex offender will take my place. If I meet one looking for a place to live, I will highly recommend it.
[ix] Jeffrey C. Sandler, Naomi J. Freeman, and Kelly M. Socia, “Does a Watched Pot Boil? A Time-Series Analysis of New York State’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law.” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Vol. 14, No. 4, Nov. 2008, P. 297