This story has been updated.

During counseling programs he’s attended throughout adulthood, Aaron Kearney has been told not to let mistakes define him and not to let the past hijack his future. But for a quarter-century, the 52-year-old has worn a label making it burdensome to live up to those ideals: “registered sex offender.” 

“The only thing I feel is that I’m just existing. I’m not living,” said Kearney, on a recent windy Thursday at Bridgeport’s St. Mary’s-by-the-Sea, sitting at a picnic bench with the Long Island Sound as his backdrop. “At the end of the day, you should have sentenced me to death.”

The Bridgeport native never imagined that his name would live on the state’s public sex offense registry for the world to see. The Connecticut Mirror could not locate records outlining specific details in his case, but available documents show he was charged in 1997 with third-degree sexual assault for what he describes as assaulting a sex worker. Promptly after, he pleaded guilty and served eight months in prison. 

Months following his release, however, Kearney received notification that Connecticut had recently enacted legislation creating the public registry. The new policy, approved during the 1998 legislative session, was retroactive, meaning people convicted of a “sexually violent offense” in the decade prior to the law’s passage would have to enroll.

Whether or not the person had served time, sexually reoffended or posed a serious risk was insignificant under the new law. That wasn’t the end of it for Kearney. The state first required people convicted of a violent sex offense to register for at least a decade, where a court would grant them relief if they could prove they weren’t likely to reoffend. But in 1999, the legislature amended the law, extending the enrollment mandate to a lifetime. 

Twenty-five years later, Kearney is among hundreds of Connecticut residents still affected by the law’s retroactive provision. Faced with decades of adversity emanating from their status on the registry, many of them are pleading with legislators to fix what they feel was a far-reaching violation of their right to due process and an indifference to their humanity. 

The registry “didn’t exist. I did not plead to it. I did not say I accept or reject,” Kearney said. “I didn’t even have the chance. And in this country, that’s not the law.”

Public sex offense registries, which reveal information ranging from one’s apartment floor to the bodily location of their tattoos, materialized in response to a number of highly publicized child abductions in the 1980s and 1990s — notably Adam Walsh, 6, in Florida, Megan Kanka, 7, in New Jersey, and Jacob Wetterling, 11, in Minnesota. Though states had already established sex offense registries, only law enforcement agencies had access to them.

Now most people convicted of sex offenses, from public indecency to first-degree sexual assault, are subject to public registration requirements with few exceptions. In Connecticut, the mandate lasts for either 10 years or a lifetime, depending on whether the charge was nonviolent or violent. Having one’s name on the registry has made it all but impossible to maintain jobs, housing and relationships, experts say. 

Furthermore, research shows that policies passed in response to sex crimes have disproportionately affected Black men like Kearney, who in Connecticut comprise more than a quarter of people on the registry, according to a CT Mirror analysis.

Trevor Hoppe, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro who studies the intersection of race and the registry, doesn’t think it’s a coincidence given all that the country has invested into protecting white children. 

“Under that veil, I think lawmakers have been able to pass all sorts of deeply punitive policies that impact way more than just people who commit crimes against children,” Hoppe said.

When Connecticut’s law was enacted, it was “designed to protect its communities from sex offenders and to help apprehend repeat sex offenders,” former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist once wrote in a case reviewing whether the Constitution afforded people a right to a hearing prior to their placement on the registry.

During this year’s legislative session, both Democrats and Republicans voted against legislation that would have removed people retroactively added. Their objections rested on the belief illustrated by Rehnquist and others — that the database works as an effective tool for maintaining public safety because it helps hold dangerous people accountable.

“If you commit that crime, that is your scarlet letter. People should know that, so they can make a well-informed decision on whether or not they want to leave their children around you,” said Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, in an interview with the CT Mirror. “The fact that people want to take that tool away from me is pretty damn ridiculous.”

But academics who conduct extensive research on sexual violence and public registries across the country offer a more nuanced perspective, noting the difference between community perceptions of safety and reality. 

If a person has lived 15 years without reoffending sexually, the odds of them reoffending are no greater than those formerly incarcerated for non-sex crimes, said Elizabeth Jeglic, a licensed clinical psychologist and a professor at John Jay’s College of Criminal Justice in New York. 

“What we know is that the registry currently does not work,” Jeglic said, adding that most crimes against children are perpetrated by someone they know.

Jeglic also cited a study published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology concluding that the implementation of registration and notification laws has demonstrated no effect on the deterrence of adult offending. 

“The evidence after 25 years suggests that there is no decrease in recidivism for those people who are on the registry,” she said. 

In addition to evidence that “the guy living around the corner on the registry may not present any risk at all to your child,” said Andrew Harris, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the stereotypical person lurking behind the bushes represents “a very slim minority.” 

“You happen to have a population here that is particularly feared, misunderstood, stigmatized and homogenized,” Harris said. “We know people are on a registry for all sorts of things. They present all different risk levels and dangers to the community, and the public registry doesn’t distinguish.” 

But studies depicting the registry as an unsuccessful tool for safety don’t resonate with attorney Natasha M. Pierre, Connecticut’s victim advocate, who said she’s seen cases where people have used it to keep their children away from dangerous people. 

While acknowledging that not all victims and survivors think the same way, she said those she has worked with rarely speak up in support of initiatives that would, for example, remove people from the registry without a thorough review process. 

“There’s not one answer for anything,” Pierre said. “But I think exposure in sex offenses works all the time and at least lets the public know, if you’re interested to find out that information, how to protect yourself and how to be aware of what’s around you.”

Kearney’s circumstances represent another layer in ongoing dialogue about the public registry. When he pleaded guilty in 1997, it didn’t exist. 

But the Connecticut State Supreme Court has ruled that the registry wasn’t intended as punishment. That meant adding people like Kearney was legally justified. Other states, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, have ruled similarly.

“Not only does it not make sense, but I think it’s a detriment to our system of justice to go back after the deal is done and add something to the deal,” said Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin. “Even if the Supreme Court claims that it’s not punitive, it’s still a factor that was certainly considered, or certainly would have been considered, in making these deals.”

Sen. Gary Winfield, co-chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, advocated for the bill this year that would have ended registration requirements for people like Kearney. Coupled with his belief that the retroactive provision in the 1998 law made little sense, he said current lawmakers haven’t sought out accurate information about the registry. 

“You’ve never investigated whether having a registry as you have it makes you safer or not,” said Winfield, D-New Haven. “You just assume so because you believe the punishment is harsh, and I don’t think that’s a smart way for us to operate.” 

Neither does Kearney, who said he hopes officials will do their homework on those who he feels should never have been added to the list. 

“You’re telling me, ‘Oh, this is not punitive,’ or whatever. Due process doesn’t count here,” Kearney said. “That doesn’t make any sense. I can’t even understand that.”

Opportunity for reprieve

When Dwight Dickerson and Scott Raymond arrived at the Legislative Office Building to testify earlier this year, they shared many similarities. They are both employed, own beautiful suburban homes and have wives and children who would move mountains for them. They were also retroactively added to the registry.

Given the original dates of their cases, the CT Mirror was unable to locate specific details beyond the charges they pleaded guilty to and the time they served, if any. 

Dickerson, who was convicted in 1994 and served two years behind bars, pleaded guilty to two counts of fourth-degree sexual assault for what he describes as giving two women inappropriate back massages during his time as a counselor for a Norwalk mental health agency. 

During plea negotiations, lawyers also resurfaced a second-degree sexual assault charge from a separate incident — which was described in a court records as “engaging in sexual intercourse with a mentally defective victim” — initially thrown out for prosecutorial misconduct, he said. 

Lacking the financial means to fight it again, he pleaded guilty under the Alford Doctrine, when a person does not admit wrongdoing but agrees that the state has enough evidence to secure a conviction. He said the two-year sentence, as opposed to the possibility of a much longer one, played a major role in his decision. 

A year before Dickerson’s conviction, Raymond agreed to two years of a suspended sentence and three years of probation after pleading guilty to third-degree sexual assault.

He says the charges originated from an accusation that he had a sexual affair with a minor when he was a driver for a mental health care program in Norwich. Raymond denies the allegations but said he pleaded guilty because he didn’t have $15,000 to secure a lawyer. 

The two men said they had accepted their punishments, served their time and begun moving on with their lives — without reoffending — when they found out about the retroactive law. 

In showing up to the Legislative Office Building in March, both hoped to convince lawmakers to support a bill that would rectify what they feel was an unjust mandate thrown in their faces more than two decades prior. 

“Even when we are successful, we are still treated as second class citizens,” Dickerson, an aircraft inspector, author and musician who holds a bachelor’s degree from Yale University, told legislators while sitting next to his daughter. 

“We have all served an additional 25-year sentence while remaining offense free,” said Raymond, an experienced bartender, with his wife in attendance.

In 2017, the Connecticut Sentencing Commission issued a report recommending that lawmakers overhaul the public sex offense registry to, in part, enroll people based on their risk of reoffending rather than a conviction. The risk-based proposal, which other states have already adopted, never gained serious traction largely because “we were talking about sex offender registries,” Winfield said.

But this year’s endeavor was more narrow. If they had remained offense free, Senate Bill 1194 would have ended enrollment requirements for the people released into the community during the 10 years prior to the implementation of the registry in 1998. 

The number of people retroactively added — and therefore people who might have benefitted — was estimated around 800, according to an analysis by One Standard of Justice, the advocacy organization who introduced and garnered support for the legislation.

A CT Mirror analysis now has the number at roughly 964, accounting for people on the registry with a conviction in the state before October 1, 1998 — when the law went into effect — and no reported convictions after.

“We thought there would be widespread acceptance at the legislature,” said Cindy Prizio, One Standard of Justice’s president and executive director. “It made sense in that most people could see that it made sense. You don’t go back and give punishment retroactively.”

The testimony of Kearney, Dickerson and Raymond resonated with lawmakers, some of whom expressed support for the registry but raised concerns about whether the people retroactively added were treated fairly by the state. 

“I know it must be difficult because we’re on camera, and it’s a public forum,” Rep. Craig Fishbein, the top House Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told Raymond. “But I will tell you that your testimony is helpful here. I want you to be able to leave here today with that knowledge. I’m totally sympathetic to the situation.”

The bill soared through the Judiciary Committee on a 34 to 3 vote, with two Democrats and one Republican voting against it, an indication that officials were at least open to further discussion.

But when it passed the Senate 22 to 14, proponents of the measure began realizing that it had a real chance of succeeding, an anomaly for a freshman bill in a building known for compromise and incremental progress.  

“I was stunned, actually,” Prizio said. “Because you don’t want to get your hopes up too high, and you’ve got a lot of people counting on you.” 

Cindy Prizio, Executive Director and President of One Standard of Justice, is an ardent activist for registry reform. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

In May, exactly a week before the 2023 legislative session was scheduled to conclude, the 151-member House brought the bill up for consideration. It was the first time some lawmakers had ever heard of or sifted through the proposal. 

“I have never seen data saying that sexual offenders do not reoffend. Nothing, literally. Or have very low reoffense rates,” Nuccio said on the floor.

However, data from the state’s Office of Policy and Management shows that out of 746 people released in 2005 who served a prison sentence for at least one sex-related offense, only 20 of them were convicted of a new sex crime within five years. 

The statistics did not have much of an effect on the debate. The Tolland Republican and others opposed wiping hundreds of people off the registry without a formalized review process. Nuccio also believed there was too much emphasis on people’s inability to attain jobs, employment and housing, and not enough on victims of sex crimes. 

“Where in this chamber do we ever stop to think about the victim in this? I would really like to know that,” Nuccio said. “How many of you have been assaulted as a minor and have to think about the person who may or may not have been convicted, henceforth, because a child will not often go and report that a family member or a family friend has molested them?”

Nuccio concluded by questioning when the legislature would decide “enough is enough,” forcefully putting her microphone down and walking out. Roughly 20 minutes later, House Majority Leader Jason Rojas ended the debate temporarily. But it turned out to be permanent. 

“I didn’t pull that bill as majority leader. I pulled it as a human being based on my colleagues who came to me to share very difficult stories about their life experiences that I think would have made further debate on that much more difficult,” said Rojas, who acknowledged that he was in favor of approving the legislation. 

“The title of the bill included sex offenders,” the East Hartford Democrat added. “That alone, and people’s lived experiences in that regard, is what led to the decision.”

Correcting their legacies

According to his testimony in court records, Dickerson has suffered harassment from coworkers. He has struggled to find employment commensurate with his experience and education. In 2008, the state denied him a pardon. 

His children grew up not knowing what it was like for their friends to set foot in their home. Out of precaution, he has trackers on his personal vehicles to eliminate questions about his location if he’s ever accused of something. 

Dickerson’s wife helps him ensure that he never sits next to women in public settings. His granddaughter’s 13th birthday trip to Florida was canceled once the cruise line found out about his “scarlet letter.” 

Dwight Dickerson (left) is pictured with his family at his home in Hamden, CT. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

Senate Bill 1194 wasn’t the first time Dickerson unsuccessfully sought reprieve from the state, but its passage could have marked a significant step toward correcting “the legacy of my family,” which the 66-year-old wants to accomplish before he dies. 

“At the end of the day, it’s really up to other people in regards to giving us that relief,” Dickerson said. “I know that we are doing, and have done and continue to do everything that we can so that when that opportunity comes into the open, we can just receive it.” 

Raymond has also known for a long time that his future on the registry depends on what others decide. Still, that didn’t diminish his initial optimism about the legislation’s odds, especially after he heard about its success in the Judiciary Committee and the Senate. 

Bartending no longer comes easy to the 61-year-old given his hip and knee replacements. For much of the year, he commuted to Boston’s Fenway Park to serve drinks at Red Sox games and concerts, a temporary gig that he resigned from in August because of the physical toll it took on him. 

The bill’s passage would have meant semi-retiring and applying for a job with Uber. But that isn’t possible while his name remains on the registry. 

 “It was real difficult,” Raymond said about the legislation’s failure, which exacerbated his depression. “When it starts again next year, I hope I’m in a better spot emotionally. Right now, I don’t know if I got it in me.”

The advocates who spent months introducing people like Dickerson and Raymond to the legislature left the state Capitol feeling like lawmakers allowed emotion and misinformation to derail what they considered good public policy. At some point, Prizio said, officials will have to take it upon themselves to “dig deeper.”

To her, that includes learning that not all people on the sex offense registry have assaulted children. Nor do all victims and survivors of sex crimes stand on the side of punishment, added Jeglic, the licensed clinical psychologist and CUNY professor who studies sexual violence. 

“It’s not a monolith. I think each individual who’s experienced sexual violence has their own thoughts and beliefs,” Jeglic said. “I think part of it is looking at what makes sense and what is going to keep people safe. And I think it is important to hear survivors’ perspectives, but I think survivors want evidence-based policy. They want to do what makes sense and then keep other people safe.” 

Next year’s legislative session convenes during an election year, possibly reducing the odds that lawmakers will support bills they see as controversial. Without a large-scale lobbying effort or public awareness campaign, said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, some may find it easier to vote no rather than “understanding the nuances.” 

Nuccio already knows where she stands. The second-term Republican representative won’t support removing hundreds of people from the registry without a review of their circumstances. Nor will Pierre, the state victim advocate, who continues to push the legislature to balance criminal justice reform with the needs of victims and survivors. 

Kearney said he just wants to live free. For much of the last 25 years, he has struggled to maintain employment and says he cycled in and out of prison for drug- and weapon-related offenses as a result. 

“Nobody’s doing background checks in the street. Nobody’s holding you accountable for all these things in the street,” he said. “You can continue to live in the underworld as long as you want. So that’s what we’re sentenced to as well.” 

The youngest of four children, he feels like he tarnished the reputation of his father, a longtime Bridgeport police officer who died in 2006. Not long ago, his great nieces and nephews found out about his status on the registry through a TikTok video which he says broadcasted Connecticut residents convicted of sex offenses. 

More recently, he was able to find employment driving for a dairy company, though the physical nature of the job has led him to needing back surgery. The father of three has started building relationships with his children, ages 28, 24, and 14, but fears that his youngest may one day suffer because of him. Kearney also recognizes that his 81-year-old mother, his biggest supporter whose health has declined as of late, won’t live forever. 

“I don’t really care how long it takes. I just need to get off,” Kearney said. “The faster, the better. But being off at some point, I have to accept whatever. However many years it takes. Hopefully my mother’s alive to see me.”

Correction

A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the name of the advocacy organization that introduced the legislation as One Standard Justice. The organization’s name is One Standard of Justice.

Jaden is CT Mirror's justice reporter. He was previously a summer reporting fellow at The Texas Tribune and interned at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. He received a bachelor's degree in electronic media from Texas State University and a master's degree in investigative journalism from the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.