Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny. — Edmund Burke
When William Hawkins was 28, he was convicted of attempted sexual contact with a 12-year-old girl. It is the sort of violation most of us find odious, but Hawkins’ crime actually occurred much earlier, when he was 16. Young men often do impulsive and stupid things. Hawkins was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison, served a bit more than 5 months and was released with the proviso that he register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
He seems to have tried to turn his life around. He became a trucker, got married, and at some point moved to Georgia without informing the local authorities of his past.
The State of Georgia locked him up on a parole violation, then released him a couple of weeks back. Though his wife has asked that he be allowed to live with her in Virginia, Georgia has refused to let him leave the state.
Now that he is out, Hawkins has discovered that Georgia’s tough sex offender laws make it nearly impossible to find a job or a place to live. To safeguard children, sex offenders there cannot live, work, or gather within 1,000 feet of any school, park or church.
So Hawkins, and a number of other registered sex offenders, live in a makeshift camp in the Georgia woods. They sleep in tents, shower under buckets, and during the day wander the nearby city looking for work.
Attorney Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights states the obvious: “requiring people to live like animals in the woods is both inhumane and a terrible idea for public safety.” (Homeless Georgia sex offenders directed to woods, Associated Press.)
I have a simple solution to Mr. Hawkins’ problem: He and other homeless sex offenders could go live with the acclaimed film director, Roman Polanski.
Mr. Polanski, whose movies have made him wealthy enough to own large homes in both France and Switzerland, himself once lusted after an under-age girl. Unlike Hawkins, Polanski wasn’t a hormone-addled teenager but a 44-year-old adult when he drugged a 13-year-old model he was photographing in his LA home and forcibly raped her.
Polanski plead guilty to a lesser crime, but fled to Europe on the eve of his sentencing. As a Polish citizen and a celebrated member of the arts community, he has lived a life of privilege in France and Switzerland these past 30 years, protected by France’s tough anti-extradition laws.
Last week, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office got the Swiss to agree to arrest Polanski pending an extradition hearing. Polanski and his privileged friends are outraged.
Mr. Polanski’s film, The Pianist, is one of the finest stories of Jewish suffering under the Nazis ever filmed. He won the Academy Award for Best Director for that work, and is without question a talented artist. Many are saying that he shouldn’t be punished for a crime that happened so long ago. His victim says she has forgiven him.
Mr. Hawkins is neither rich nor artistic. Eighteen years after his crime, he lives in a muddy clearing in a small, nylon tent. He spends his days gathering firewood and warm clothing to prepare for the coming winter. He survives on food stamps and the generosity of friends, who might not be blamed for wondering why he is still being punished while Polanski, this darling of the glitterati, goes free.
The answer, we know, is that justice too often favors the wealthy and well-connected. The law has little in common with real justice, and frequently attempts to excise the malignancy of evil (e.g., sex crimes) with a machete instead of a scalpel.
Justice has failed William Hawkins. Long after paying for his youthful stupidity, he keeps paying and paying, beyond all reason, all sense, all that is fair.
But if possible, Roman Polanski’s story is even more maddening. Polanski has not merely escaped justice; he has raped her, as surely and painfully as he raped his young victim all those years ago.
And he’ll probably get away with it.
This morning, William Hawkins woke up from a fitful night sleeping on the cold ground, heated his breakfast over a propane burner, and shuffled out of the woods, looking for an opportunity to start his life over again. I hope he succeeds.
Update: Authorities have evicted the homeless sex offenders from their camp in the woods. No word yet on where they will end up. Neither Roman Polanski nor Whoopi Goldberg could be reached for comment.