On New Year’s Day, a Florida-based child abuse prevention group called Child AbuseWatch.net called on the NFL to replace the featured musical act in its upcoming Super Bowl halftime show. That musical act, iconic ’60s classic rock band The Who, is led by Townsend, who was arrested by British police in 2003 on charges of possessing child pornography, later cleared of those charges by London’s Metropolitan Police, and eventually placed on the UK Violent and Sexual Offender Registry for five years as part of a formal police caution.
In making his request to the NFL, Child AbuseWatch.net founder and CEO Evin Daly stated, “I’m a fan of the band, I grew up with The Who. Pete Townshend is the only issue, and the issue is that he’s a former registered sex offender. The issue is, it sends the wrong message to American families.”
When he was caught up in that police undercover operation, Townsend claimed he had attempted to enter a child pornography website (using his own credit card to do so) as part of research for his autobiography.
No matter what his reasoning or motivation, what Townsend did is—and should be—a crime. Townsend has admitted as much. In fact, prior to his arrest, Townsend had been waging a long-running and well-documented campaign to alert British authorities to the proliferation of child pornography sites and to request that they be shut down.
But Townsend did what he did. Though he was absolved of any felony by the arresting authorities, he submitted to sex offender registry anyway, and has since seemed to stay out of any subsequent trouble. So that’s the end of it. Right?
Well, no. Because when it comes to sex offender crimes, it’s never really over. Sex crime conviction in the US has become a kind of one-strike-and-you’re-out-forever offense. Hiring these people for any sort of meaningful job, putting them in any position of authority, or giving them any means to start anew would, unfortunately, “send the wrong message.”
In 2007, a news story featured in CNN and Newsweek revealed that the area beneath a bridge on Miami’s Julia Tuttle Causeway had become home for a small group of men (less than a dozen) who were registered sex offenders in Florida. State law prohibits such people from living within 2500 feet of schools, parks, swimming pools or any other places children might gather. Faced with these restrictions, the men simply had nowhere else to go. In 2008, the state of Florida handed down an injunction ordering the men (then numbering 19) to move somewhere else. The Florida Board of Corrections stepped in and tried to offer the men housing alternatives. But there was nowhere else to send them. As of late 2009, the handful of tents under the bridge had grown to include dozens of tents and shacks, and there are now more than 80 men and women living there. Authorities in other states face similar problems with their own sex offender populations, which continue to grow swiftly.
Perhaps some of the people living under the bridge may need watching forever. Maybe there’s another Phillip Garrido, biding his time before kidnapping a Jaycee Dugard. At least some of them, however, are like Homer Barclay. From an NPR story on the sex offenders under the bridge:
“Homer Barclay came to live here a year and a half ago. Barclay was convicted of attempted sexual battery in 1992. Last year, after a parole violation, he says probation officers gave him just one option. “They told me that I had to live up under the Julia Tuttle Causeway,” says Barclay. “I said, ‘How come I have to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway?’ They said, ‘If you want to go home, this is where you got to go.’ “
Pete Townsend is one of the lucky ones. He has an income, a place to live.
But what of the tens of thousands of other sex offenders, people who are guilty of a single sex-related offense years or even decades ago? What of other people like Townsend, who have been convicted—or, like Townsend, accused and exonerated—of a single non-violent crime? Should we be watching them forever, too?