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.
I once heard Sue Tobin, with Ohio Legal Rights, comment on a different miscarriage of justice: “We call it the legal system, not the justice system.” True. It’s so humanly flawed.
I like the idea of Polanski showing a different kind of hospitality to atone for past sins.
Hey thanks for this article. What a tragedy. My son got himself a serious drug problem and ended up with nine felonies for burglarizing veterinary and dental clinics. When he got out of prison he felt hopeless because it’s almost impossible to find housing or jobs and he was lucky because he came home to a loving, supportive family.
I live in Minneapolis and see the devastating effects of draconian felony discrimination. I know several neighbors who have given up on life because they are 18, 19, or 20 and have felonies.
Felons are the only segment of society that are legally discriminated against. This must change!! And add a sexual crime and as you’ve written the discrimination is even worse. This kid getting labeled as a sexual predator because of a teenage mistake is wrong. Real sexual predators are a problem. But can’t we as a society distinguish between a real menace and a kid that got caught doing what too many kids do.
The laws against felons need to change.
As a Public Defender I saw first-hand how the sex offender registry became a life sentence for someone who deserved to be punished for his crime, but not to be castigated from society forever. He received death threats from someone who surfed the registry, and when a family member took him in, the family member was told it was a lease violation and he had to go. He went to Georgia to be near other family and lived in a literal hole in the ground. Because he failed to report his whereabouts to Virginia he was arrested and extradited to serve more time in prison for violating parole. When I met this man he was going to work and trying to live a quiet life.
You can’t find much sympathy for these folks though. It is ironic that in our amoral, permissive society, sex crimes are the unforgiveable offenses. Moral relativity abounds, but when it comes to this, mob mentality rules.