David Kaplan had a problem. He was hurtling toward the end of a three-year sentence in state prison, and he had nowhere to go. He wanted to return to Philadelphia to be near his teenage son, but he was terrified at the prospect of navigating Philly’s homeless shelters without the promise of a bed, worried he would end up sleeping on the street. With a sex offense on his record, the former addict says, “I couldn’t take that chance.” He wrote to every shelter in Philadelphia, practically every one in the state.
Only one wrote back: a place called Just for Jesus, in the tidy, one-stoplight town of Brockway, about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh in Jefferson County.
So, this past July 24, Kaplan left prison and found himself at a ragged complex of buildings and trailers marked by crooked, hand-painted signs reading “Welcome to the Streets of Nazareth.” Clinging to the edge of a hill about a mile outside the center of town, the farmstead happens to house what’s probably Pennsylvania’s highest concentration of unincarcerated sex offenders, hailing from all over the state.
Deep in Pennsylvania’s Bible Belt (and, nowadays, shale country), this place is the brainchild of an evangelical and some would say radical preacher, Bishop Jack Wisor of the nondenominational First Apostles’ Doctrine Church. A former homebuilder and recovered alcoholic, Wisor found Jesus — literally: he testifies to having picked him up while driving along a desolate roadway in his 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass — and about 10 years ago turned his woodshop into a church and his house into a homeless shelter.
Planning the shelter, says Wisor, “I started feeling like Noah building the ark.” There were, after all, few homeless people or homeless services in Jefferson County. But once he opened his doors, “Within two weeks, I had 30-something people in my home that needed help.” The place filled up so fast that Wisor himself had to move out.
By 2007, Wisor was flooded with letters from state prison inmates requesting approved home plans, the stable residences that are required for parole. And in 2009, the sex offenders began arriving. Wisor welcomed them: He’s developed a 12-step program based on scripture and a printed guide to spotting sexual abuse. As long as they can follow the rules, almost no one is turned away.
A few weeks into his stay at Just for Jesus, Kaplan — a former restaurant manager who pleaded no-contest to aggravated indecent assault in 2010 — still looks shell-shocked. This is, after all, an unlikely place for a guy brought up Jewish in Northeast Philly. (He initially thought he was applying for a berth at someplace called “Just for Jews.”) He’s now living alongside about two dozen other sex offenders.
And many in Brockway, a town of 2,000, don’t share Wisor’s welcoming spirit. A group called Concerned Citizens has organized around shutting down the shelter — holding meetings, printing up T-shirts, rallying on Facebook. Brockway residents regularly post photos of the offenders under car windshields and in store windows around town. And Wisor has made a nemesis of local state Sen. Joe Scarnati, a Brockway Republican who in 2011 introduced legislation preventing more than five offenders classified as sexually violent predators (SVPs) from living at the same address. The law, he told the Punxsutawney Spirit, partly targeted Just for Jesus, which housed six SVPs at the time. After protests broke out around the arrival of paroled murderer Ernie Simmons in 2010, home plans stopped being approved at Just for Jesus altogether. Wisor believes Scarnati put a moratorium on home plans there, though Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole spokesman Leo Dunn says the board doesn’t play politics. It does, however, take into account factors like complaints about a facility from offenders and feedback from the local police — with whom Wisor admittedly has a fraught relationship.
But into this standoff, the sex offenders continue arriving, to the increasing hostility of the neighbors.
How Kaplan and so many others have washed up here, of all places, can be traced back to a simple underlying problem: Pennsylvania has given little thought to what to do with its thousands of sex offenders, how to house them or reintegrate them into society. Instead, a web of confusing and often contradictory laws and policies has kept hundreds of sex offenders in prison for years even after they earn parole, made life increasingly difficult on the outside and spawned strange, unpredictable results — like dozens of sex offenders winding up in a shelter on the outskirts of a small town like Brockway.
And that web is about to get way more tangled.
The state’s prisons are overflowing with sex offenders, and many are due (if not overdue, after years of tough parole policies) to be released. At the same time, new, tougher laws are eating away at the limited options available to them on the outside. Meanwhile, City Paper has learned that recently (and somewhat secretively) relaxed parole policies could mean hundreds more sex offenders hitting the streets in the very near future.
Pennsylvania has spent much of the past 16 years trying to figure out what to do with its sex offenders. Gov. Tom Ridge first enacted the state’s version of the federally mandated Megan’s Law back in 1996; it’s since been repealed, re-enacted and amended into its current iteration. Although most people think of Megan’s Law as applying to child predators, it’s now an increasingly broad umbrella: statutory rape, sexual assault of an adult, viewing of child pornography, invasion of privacy and exposing oneself in public (including to urinate) can all get your mug shot on the online registry.
In recent years, adding more tough-on-crime amendments to Megan’s Law has been a popular pursuit for legislators.
“In this session in Harrisburg, there were 53 bills related to sex offenders,” says Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “It’s almost like open season. Anybody who can dream up anything to make [offenders’] lives more miserable puts a bill in. It’s society seeking to purge their collective guilt by scapegoating sex offenders.”
The latest twist, a sweeping new law set to take effect this December, could make a bad situation perilously worse. The state’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) — Pennsylvania’s answer to the demands of the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, which requires that states impose tougher laws or risk losing some federal funds — will, among other things, require more people to register for longer and check in more frequently with state police.
Nicole Pittman, who is researching the impact of SORNA laws around the country for Human Rights Watch, says that SORNA laws elsewhere have proven devastating for sex offenders trying to reintegrate with society — and Pennsylvania’s version looks to be among the harshest.
She points out that, for many, the cycle of punishment will begin anew: “People who were looking at a year or two of registration [remaining] are now going to be reclassified as 25 years or life.”
Despite all that, Pennsylvania is not, in fact, the most restrictive place in the country for sex offenders to live — at least not yet. That’s largely because the state Supreme Court last year struck down local residency restrictions for offenders in Allegheny County, calling hundreds of similar ordinances around the state into question. However, a bill creating statewide residency restrictions is currently in committee in the Pennsylvania Senate; it has 10 sponsors, including Philly’s own Larry Farnese and Anthony Williams. Such legislation could bring Pennsylvania in line with Florida, where restrictions preventing offenders from living near parks, schools, bus stops or day cares famously force many sex offenders into exile, living under bridges or in sugarcane fields.
In the meantime, state officials have found a way to restrict where many sex offenders live anyway.
Even though there are technically no residency restrictions in Pennsylvania, for hundreds of offenders coming out of state prisons, de facto restrictions are already in place — through the state Board of Probation and Parole.
The board typically rejects sex offenders’ home plans if they’re too close to a school, day care or playground. As a result, says Love, almost all sex offender home plans are denied.
“Most sex offenders are going to max out,” or serve out their maximum sentences, rather than be paroled, he says. The Pennsylvania Prison Society estimates that there are about 1,000 sex offenders who have earned parole but are still in state prison because they can’t get home plans approved.
That comes at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $33,000 per inmate or, altogether, $33 million a year.
Ann Schwartzman, policy director for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, says there’s also a greater cost. Inmates who are released on parole are monitored by a parole officer and may be required to undergo therapy. But those who “max out” and leave prison without parole or probation go completely unsupervised — a much more dangerous proposition.