Paul J. Weber
AUSTIN, TEXAS: Four convicted sex offenders huddled in a busy hallway at the Texas Capitol, congratulating each other for going public and testifying against a bill that would plaster their criminal past on their Facebook profiles.
As expected, not everyone was moved by their objections.
“I don’t feel bad for the guys that came in here whining,” Republican state Rep. Steve Toth said after the men had left the room at a recent House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee meeting. A Democrat switched on her microphone to voice on the record that she, too, had no sympathy.
In the Texas Legislature and statehouses nationwide, bills aimed at curbing how and where sex offenders can live and work are routine. But for the 72,000 registered sex offenders in Texas this year, there is optimism. A legislative victory is in sight, and it’s not for sinking a fresh round of get-tougher proposals — but scaling back one already in place.
Pushing forward what advocates say would mark a minor but extraordinary softening of the state’s sex offender laws, the GOP-controlled Senate has passed a bill to remove employer information from Texas’ online sex-offender registry.
“I’ve been on that registry for 15 years and going on for a lifetime,” said Hwi-Kee Wong, 34, who works in information technology and said he was arrested at 18 for copying illegal images. “I’ve never re-offended. I have no intention to re-offend.”
It’s not a change of heart swaying lawmakers but the wringing hands of frustrated business leaders — they complain their bottom line suffers when the public discovers who’s on the payroll.
The odd result: Sex offenders and Gov. Rick Perry’s favorite conservative think tank is among those left seeing eye-to-eye. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, which backs business-friendly bills, argues the current registry comes between the private relationship between employer and employee.
“We’ve seen if it bleeds, it leads in news coverage for years,” said Marc Levin, director of the foundation’s Center for Effective Justice. “Obviously, people may be able to make money by doing a news report, ‘We went to a McDonald’s and there was a sex offender serving as a cashier’ or something. It may be salacious, but what’s the public interest?”
Mary Sue Molnar, executive director of Texas Voices for Reason and Justice and the mother of a registered sex offender, said the bill is only the second her group has endorsed since forming in 2007.
Hers and a small band of similar organizations typically play defense in statehouses, arguing that decades of stacking one restriction atop another has pushed sex offenders to society’s fringes. They say the result is growing ranks of unemployable and homeless outcasts, who then become more likely to commit new crimes.
“[Texas] would have every right to crow,” said Brenda Jones, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Reform Sex Offender Laws Inc. “It would be a huge win.”