Unlikely Advocates

***Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault, Violence***

Monster. Pedophile. Predator.

These are the words society uses to define people who have been convicted of a sex offense – words that create their own life sentence, intended to permanently isolate and condemn, and imply an inability to change.

But I have found these words to be inaccurate descriptors and damaging to our society as a whole. I firmly believe, based on my own personal experiences, getting to know people I’ve had the privilege to work with, and my faith, that none of us is excluded from the ability to change.

Our culture has a fascination with the crime shows shown on the major networks that have enjoyed decades of success through thousands of episodes. While there are plot lines and elements that are realistic or based on actual cases, we forget that they are primarily works of fiction with no responsibility, for example, to tell you what the aggregate data says or to tell you about the thousands of successful returning citizens (because that would be very boring TV).

I enjoy these shows as much as the next person, but if these were your primary source of information, it’s no wonder that you would live in fear of serial “monsters” lurking around every corner. Or be convinced that “those people” don’t change. Or think that “sexual offense” automatically means pedophilia or rape.

When I have conversations with people, they’re usually shocked to find out that the recidivism rate for sexual offenses is between 2-8% within the nine years following release, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics 2014 report, which is much lower than the general recidivism rate (generally 40-60%). It’s not consistent with society’s narrative or with the narrative around “tough on crime” initiatives that exploit victims’ pain and fear and are often counterproductive to their healing process.

They’re even more shocked when they find out that I experienced sexual abuse and am an advocate for those who have been convicted of sexual offenses to make it possible for them to become healthy, productive members of society upon release.

And I’m not the only one.

Dr. Alissa Ackerman (photo via Twitter) is a world-renowned researcher at Cal State-Fullerton focusing on sex crimes as well as a writer, public speaker, and podcast host. At 16 years old, she was at a party with her girlfriend at the beach and went for a walk with a male she had she just met, who then violently raped her.

She didn’t disclose the events of the night to anyone because she didn’t feel like she would be believed and wasn’t supposed to be at the party. This secret ate away at her until she was finally able to be open about it six years ago.

Dr. Ackerman has loved her work in researching sexual offenses, but she found her true passion five years ago in restorative justice work. Restorative justice resolves conflict between someone who caused harmed, the individual harmed, and the community. It allows all parties to be involved in the process and brings healing, as opposed to our current justice system which pits people against each other. She is able to help those who have committed sexual offenses view themselves as humans and know that they have intrinsic value.

These circles have brought healing to her too as she was able to humanize the teenager who violently raped her. No longer does she view him as a monster but as someone who has the ability to change and be productive in life.

Guy Hamilton-Smith (photo via Twitter) is a lawyer, public speaker, and writer. He focuses on the collateral consequences of the sex offender registry. At 8 years old, he felt like he had “arrived” when he was invited into a 16 year old neighbor’s room. When he was raped by this boy, he went home and told his parents. Immediately he was filled with shame that he had done something wrong. Nothing came of the investigation by the police.

Guy became a recluse and dove into pornography, his addiction spiraling out of control until he began looking at child pornography. He was arrested and charged and is now is one of the almost one million people on the registry.

After graduating from law school, Guy applied to take the KY bar exam. The bar association denied his application because of his record, and the media blasted his story out for all to see. Reeling and not knowing what to do next, he had an unexpected experience at church.Instead of being excommunicated and ridiculed, two older ladies sat down next to him, grabbed his arms, and showed him compassion and support when he needed it the most. This encouraged him to keep moving forward, propelling him into his current work and being an advocate.

He passed the bar exam in 2020.

As you can see through our personal stories, those who are harmed may respond in different ways and may or may not react in unhealthy ways that lead to criminal prosecution. All three of us internalized the pain and didn’t talk about it for years, wearing masks so no one knew the real us (we didn’t know the real us either). Dr. Ackerman didn’t talk about it until she was already researching sex crimes; Guy didn’t talk openly about it until it was shared via the Washington Post and Fox News; and I didn’t share that my brother and I had been sexually and physically abused until I was being interrogated for murdering our abuser. We tried to survive by keeping it buried deep within ourselves until we were forced to wrestle with and release it.

Sexual abuse produces trauma that invades every aspect of a person’s life, taking control of its host like a virus. Healing is a process that takes time and effort, and unfortunately we know that many people who commit sex offenses have been abused themselves. Whether or not someone goes on to harm others, everyone who has unresolved trauma has the same need for healing and growth.

The eight years of sexual and physical abuse I experienced resulted in many unhealthy and dysfunctional behaviors in my life, including unhealthy relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, and committing murder by taking the abuser’s life. I am no better than someone who caused sexual harm because I also needed to heal, to forgive and be forgiven, and learn healthy behaviors in order to succeed in society.

I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to work with men who have been convicted of sex offenses as a reentry program manager in Lancaster, PA. Not only could I relate to the residents as someone who had been incarcerated but as someone who had also experienced trauma, abuse, and dysfunction, as many of them had, and as someone who could lead them through restorative justice conversations as part of their healing and growth journeys.

As many thought leaders have pointed out, our culture believes that anything less than outright hostility means that you condone the other’s actions. Instead, being an advocate for those who have been convicted of a sexual offense means that I look at them as a human being with inherent value. I want to see them redeemed and healthy not only for their own sake but also as the best way to prevent future sexual harm.

The voices of those like Dr. Alissa Ackerman, Guy Hamilton-Smith, and me are important. Our past allows us to have conversations that break down labels and stereotypes, help educate society as a whole, and bring healing to those who have been harmed and have harmed others. We’ve had the privilege of watching people transform before our eyes through the redeeming power of restorative justice principles.

If you have been challenged to get involved, here are some ways to begin. To start, read “Until We Reckon” by Danielle Sered and “South of Forgiveness: A True Story of Rape and Responsibility Book” by Thordis Elva. Search for organizations in your area that are involved with restorative justice, have support group meetings, or advocate for this population, such as NARSOL and their state affiliates. Finally, advocate to your legislative officials and on social media for restorative justice practices and redemptive opportunities for those who have been convicted.

By: David Garlock

Criminal Justice Activist, Returning Citizen and Public Speaker

David L. Garlock is a successful returning citizen, reentry professional, and criminal justice reform advocate. David and his brother received 25-year sentences in Alabama after taking the life of their abuser. A client of Equal Justice Initiative, he was released on parole in 2013 after serving more than 13 years and pursuing several educational opportunities while incarcerated. He subsequently obtained his bachelor's degree from Eastern University and was the Lancaster Program Director for New Person Ministries, a reentry program for men who have been convicted of sex offenses and other returning citizens, from 2017-2020. David graduated from JustLeadershipUSA’s Leading with Conviction fellowship program in 2019. He is also a board member for the National Association for Rational Sex Offense Laws, Co-Chair of the Board for the Lancaster County Reentry Management Organization, and a member of the Pennsylvania Reentry Council, a statewide coalition of county reentry organizations. David enjoys educating the next generation of criminal justice professionals on rehabilitation and advocating in various spheres for an effective and equitable justice system. He is a frequent speaker at colleges and universities, criminal and social justice conferences, and community events, and he appeared in the film Just Mercy (2020). David resides in Coatesville, PA with his family, where they enjoy serving with their local church.