A day and a life to celebrate
By Jon Cruz . . . My SORA hearing has come and gone, and it would be an understatement to say it went very well. New York is one of relatively few states not to classify people required to register for past sexual offenses through an automatic rubric; it conducts a hearing to determine one’s “risk level” to the community. Judge Robert McDonald denied the People’s request for a spurious upward departure and commented, after noting my various good works, “That departure is not warranted because the aggravating circumstances alleged by the People, in my belief, are not the kind or to a degree not adequately taken into account by the guidelines, and I also believe that in weighing these aggravating factors, I also have to weigh the mitigating factors.”
In short, stripped of the mandatory legalese, His Honor judged me as a complete person. And I am grateful for it, because such hearings, conducted before elected judges on the local level, are often summary affairs with preordained conclusions. I was assigned to an excellent jurist who read every submission, listened to every witness, and weighed the evidence in front of him.
“None of us have a crystal ball,” he said. “None of us can say what’s going to happen in the future. But it strikes me that there’s very little else that this man could have done to show that he has been rehabilitated than what he has done.”
And with that, after an hour-and-a-half of proceedings, including a surreal My Cousin Vinny-style moment where my attorney and employer, the redoubtable Steve Zissou, insisted on taking the stand himself as a witness on my behalf, His Honor gave me the mildest branding: a Level One.
During my time as a federal prisoner at FCI Danbury, I was the “Grade 1” of the library work detail—prison argot for the head librarian—overseeing both the leisure and law libraries. I assisted inmates with developing literacy skills, prepared legal documents free of charge, taught courses in history and law and public speaking, tutored inmates who were seeking their GEDs, and helped inmates rebuild ties with estranged family members. Over one hundred inmates submitted testimonials on my behalf for my hearing in addition to the testimonials that were submitted by supporters here on the outside. And after my release, Steve, who had represented me so capably after my arrest, asked me to come work for him to help defend the rights and dignity of others.
Judge McDonald considered these facts, in addition to the facts of my crime. I am grateful. When we approach my federal judge to ask for an early termination of my supervised release, Judge McDonald’s findings from my SORA hearing will help. And so, again, I am grateful.
As a Level One registrant, I must be on the New York State registry for “merely” twenty years; the clock began upon my release, so I have about eighteen years and three months to go. I will, however, still need to be conscious of each state’s registry laws for the rest of my life. This is not a “red state” or “blue state” issue. Twenty-eight states and territories require registration for visits of less than seven days. Some require it for less than three days.
I will also have a seal on my passport for the rest of my life—or until the Supreme Court recognizes how grotesque this law, passed unanimously by Congress, is. The last society to place an identifying marker for an undesirable class on a passport was . . . yes, you guessed it: Nazi Germany. Should I wish to travel to another country, I must notify Uncle Sam in advance so the special agency established by said law—the “Angel Watch Center,” perhaps the most Orwellian name I’ve ever heard—can notify the other country that I am planning to travel there and tell them all sorts of terrible things about me.
But I am hopeful. I have long believed the debate over the justice of gay marriage and the debate over the injustice of sex offender registries are analogous in that opinions change when people realize they know someone who is personally affected by an issue. Eventually, society will change on the question because, the way things are going, before too much longer every person in the United States will know someone on the registry.