Journalists Beth Schwartzapfel and Emily Kassie led their project “Banished" with Dale Brown, and wisely so. He’s a compelling, sympathetic figure; a homeless man who meticulously cares for his few belongings and disposes of his own urine in a bush, where it won’t smell or get on anyone.
Then readers discover he’s a registered sex offender. Formerly a teacher, he was convicted of molesting students. And he’s one of nearly 500 convicted sex offenders living nomadically in Miami-Dade County.
For the two journalists and their team at the nonprofit criminal justice reporting institute The Marshall Project, it wasn’t about taking sides, but about exploring the humanity and the constitutionality of excommunicating sex offenders who’ve served their time.
Kassie and Schwartzapfel, who have a history of covering issues surrounding criminal justice and sex crimes, said that the story isn’t necessarily about empathizing with the worst kind of criminal, but examining how public policy affects humanity, while asking an important question: Is this what society wants?
“I’ve always been interested in where terrible anecdotes make terrible public policy,” Schwartzapfel said. “There's nowhere that's more obvious than in the criminal justice system's approach to sex offenders.”
Miami-Dade County’s restrictions are among the nation’s most stringent, the pair revealed:
“A combination of federal, state and local laws has rendered almost all of Miami-Dade County off-limits to sex offenders with young victims. The feds say they’re not allowed in public housing. The state says they can’t live within 1,000 feet of a day care center, park, playground or school. The county says they can’t live within 2,500 feet of a school. In a place so densely populated, forbidden zones are everywhere. And in the narrow slivers of permitted space, affordable apartments with open-minded landlords are nearly impossible to come by.”
The result, the team discovered, is a nomadic tribe of homeless sex offenders, constantly seeking to follow the rules but looking for some small semblance of humanity — say, dry quarters, bathrooms and a place to sleep.
Schwartzapfel said it’s her job to ask difficult questions, even about populations no one’s eager to stand up for.
“This is like the third rail,” she said. “This is the thing that no one wants to touch.”
Co-reporter Kassie agreed.
“What do you do with people considered to be … truly the black sheep of our society?” she asked. “What do we do with them once they’ve served their time?”
Both journalists said they approached the project with some reservations about the timing, in light of Christine Blasey Ford’s recent testimony against Brett Kavanaugh and the #metoo movement.
Schwartzapfel said one goal of the criminal justice system is prevention: in this case, to keep sexual crimes from happening to anyone else.
But when people treat sex criminals as monsters, they misstep.
“If you start to think these are humans — to ask what motivated them to do this, who are they — then we can begin to start having a conversation about how to prevent this.”
The team said the response to the project has been mixed, noting again that it’s a tough time in America to talk about sexual crimes. Some people reported that they appreciated seeing the situation in a new light, while others didn’t understand the emphasis on the “worst people in society.”
“We’ve gotten a range (of reactions),” Kassie said. "Some of our audience saw the nuance and counter-intuitiveness of these laws and how they can negatively impact, and some of course could not get past the fact that these are sex offenders we're talking about.”
Though approaching the issue from a policy standpoint, Kassie said the moral question was difficult to grapple with.
“These are people who committed horrendous crimes, but they're also human beings who need to survive and have access to basic rights once they've served their time,” she said.
“Our goal was not necessarily to feel sympathy for these people,” Schwartzapfel said. “Rather, we wanted to ask what would happen if you follow these laws, this approach, to its logical conclusion: You now have 488 homeless sex offenders wandering around Miami-Dade. Is that what the county wants as the end result of its public policy?”