By the time deputies arrested Thomas Bernard Brown for failing to register as a sexual predator, he had built up a 10-year record of consistent registration in Marion County.
“My only crime, your honor, is that I have become old and forgetful,” he told Circuit Judge Robert Hodges that day.
Brown is currently serving a three-plus-year sentence. He took his case to a jury, and the sentence is in line with state guidelines. While mental impairment can stand as grounds for a judge to grant a more lenient sentence than the guidelines recommend, Hodges pointed to circumstances in Brown’s case that, in the judge’s eyes, suggested the excuse didn’t make that cut.
The diagnosis came after Brown’s arrest and after he self-reported memory loss to his doctor, for example. Hodges also pointed out that Brown’s memory issues didn’t seem to affect his ability to run Solid Rock Foundation of Marion County, a nonprofit that served men transitioning out of custody. The seriousness of Brown’s underlying crimes, too, make adherence to reporting requirements particularly important, according to the line of reasoning Hodges voiced in June.
(Brown has long maintained his innocence on a sex-related convictions, following arrests in Texas in 1985 and in Florida in 2001, both of which involved young girls.)
His case stands as an example of the sorts of challenges that legally designated sexual offenders and sexual predators can face as they reach their 70s, 80s and 90s in a state that calls for lifetime reporting requirements. Advocates who work with sex offenders throughout Florida say they’re familiar with cases like Brown’s, in which dementia of Alzheimer’s disease affects an offender’s ability to comply with requirements.
Jim Broderick, president and CEO of Florida Justice Transitions, a Clearwater-based nonprofit, recalled an offender, several years ago, who ran into trouble during a grocery trip when he unintentionally left an electronic monitoring system on the roof of his car.
That man, Broderick said, was similarly in the early stages of dementia.
Broderick and other advocates also point to complications that arise when an offender needs to enter assisted living or a nursing home. These facilities often do not, or cannot, accept them.
“Very often it’s not that these facilities do not want to provide services,” said Gail Colletta, president of the Florida Action Committee, a nonprofit based in Lake Monroe that supports and advocates for sex offenders and their families. “They are located in places that don’t meet residency restrictions.”
“This population is growing every single day,” said Ted Rodarm, executive director of Matthew 25 Ministries, referencing the state’s aging population. “This is only going to get worse until we get some change.”
Florida counts more than 1,100 individuals on its registry who are older than 80, according to Colletta. Her breakdown also covers an additional 3,600-plus who are older than 70. In Marion County, Lt. Michelle Wissinger, commander of the Sexual Offender/Predator Unit within the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, said that 74 of the approximately 870 offenders and predators the agency tracks are 70 or older.
Advocates said it’s reasonable to assume those number will increase as populations continue to age in Florida and in the United States.
Rodarm, for example, said he sees this trend through his work at City of Refuge, a community in Pahokee that provides housing exclusively to sex offenders. Matthew 25 Ministries runs the community. City of Refuge does not provide medical care for its residents, but Rodarm said several are in their 70s, 80 and even 90s.
At Sex Offender Housing of Florida, a 55-plus community for sex offenders outside of Orlando, Lori Nassofer said she, too, sees steady demand from an aging population.
“Their needs are going to increase exponentially,” Colletta said of elderly sex offenders. “We don’t have provisions for that.”
Consider residency restrictions, for example. Florida law mandates that a registered sex offender cannot live within 1,000 feet of a school, child care facility, park or playground. While that complicates housing options for an offender of any age, it can particularly limit an elderly or infirm offender who’s trying to enter an assisted living or nursing home facility.
Nassofer said she has seen this play out. She recalled contacting a nursing home about a resident and learning that, while the nursing home’s policies would allow the man to live there, the building sat too close to a school to accept him.
“What difference does it make if he’s near a school?” Nassofer asked, pointing out that patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease often live in locked facilities anyway. “He can’t do anything.”
Colletta echoed the frustration.
“If I’m at the point where I need a nursing home,” she said, speaking hypothetically, “I’m not a threat.”
Underscoring the point is a recent case out of Boynton Beach. In September, the family of a nursing home resident, Jack Ehrhart, pushed back against threats to arrest Ehrhart for violating a residency ordinance. The nursing home sits closer to a preschool than the ordinance allows.
Courthouse News Service identified Earhart as having end-stage Alzheimer’s disease. The former gynecologist’s conviction dates back to the mid-1980s, when patients complained that he touched them sexually.
“You can’t get them in nursing homes,” Broderick said of the offenders he’s worked with through Florida Justice Transitions, which provides support and transitional housing to offenders. “I’ve had very limited success, but they’re not really good quality nursing homes.
“It’s a challenge,” he said.
If, or when, a registered sex offender cannot find care through an assisted living or nursing home, advocates said there are no good answers. Rodarm said the burden of caring for them likely falls to the family members.
Wissinger and Detective Tasha Nix, who also works in Sexual Offender/Predator Unit at the Sheriff’s Office, said they’ve seen family members step in to ensure that the offender registers on time in some cases. In others they said they make can accommodations — if an offender were bedridden, for example.
They said that, in their experience, an elderly offender is no more likely to abscond, or fail to register, than anyone else.
In Marion County, where advocates around the state could not point to any specific resources, it’s unclear what options, if any, are available to elderly sex offenders. Jennifer Martinez, executive director of Marion Senior Services, said her organization does not have experience catering to their specific needs, but that it does not discriminate against them.
From Colletta’s perspective, the most effective solution to the challenges that elderly sex offenders face is to eliminate the registry altogether. She and other advocates suggested that the registry appeals more to politicians and to the public more than it serves any public safety purpose.
Recidivism among sex offenders is statistically lower than recidivism among those convicted of other crimes. Colletta puts the rate at 13 percent for sex offenders who commit another sex-related crime. (For comparison, the Public Policy Institute of Marion County reported in 2014 that 79.4 percent of inmates at the Marion County Jail were repeat offenders.)
And, obviously, the registry offers no warning to the public if someone is a first-time offender.
Short of eliminating the registry, Colletta suggested several measures that the Legislature could take to ease what she cast as unnecessary burdens on elderly sex offenders.
She called for the elimination of residency restrictions, for one, painting them as a particularly ineffective element of registry requirements. Or, she suggested, the state could enact residency exceptions for facilities that provide treatment or care.
While that would address situations like Earhart’s in Boynton Beach, she pointed out that this measure, too, could more easily allow offenders to enter residential substance abuse or rehabilitation programs.
Colletta also suggested the offenders in Florida need a path toward attrition, or natural removal from the registry.
“These men in their 70s 80s or 90s — they’re no longer a threat,” Rodarm said. “They’re still being punished for a crime where they’ve already paid their debt to society. It’s in nobody’s best interest to keep them in custody.”
That’s in line with Ruthanna Smith’s line of thinking. Smith is a friend of Brown, the Marion County defendant, whom she knew through her church. Smith said she had been helping Brown work on an application for clemency through the governor before his arrest; afterward, she sat in on his trial and sentencing hearing.
To Smith, it was particularly upsetting to hear attorneys dredge up details of a 35-year-old conviction, for which Brown has already served a sentence. Smith said she doesn’t understand the logic in incarcerating someone she knows as a committed church member.
“Why would the state of Florida want to punish someone for being old and forgetful?” she asked.