Dallas Prisoner Advocate Josh Gravens Faces Prison Himself over Technicality

At the end of April, Josh Gravens was testifying in Austin, lobbying to support legislation affecting the criminal justice world. One week later, Gravens was back home in Dallas, in the Frank Crowley criminal courthouse, facing his own criminal charges that may put him away for up to 25 years if convicted. The crime that Dallas County prosecutors insist Gravens committed is itself a minor technicality --"Failure to Comply with Registration Requirements"-- but dates back to a sexual offense he was convicted of at age 12.

Among prison reform advocates in Dallas, Gravens' is a familiar name, frequently seen speaking at public meetings and quoted in news reports. In 2013, he was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship, a prestigious 18-month job that funds people working toward criminal justice reform. Among his recent causes has been preserving in-person visitation at the county jails in Dallas, an issue that he worked on with Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. Most of Gravens' work focuses on the much less popular cause of fighting for the rights of sex offenders. Among the various reforms he's called for are a faster, more efficient registration office at the Dallas Police Department. Currently, the department's sex offender registration office is open about five hours, three days a week. Most offenders have to go on Wednesdays, the day allotted to people needing to update their addresses, employment, new email addresses or changes in appearance.

Because of the long lines, no restroom in the waiting room and no way to call in if you're running late, the process in Dallas seems designed to get offenders in trouble for not registering on time, rather than encouraging people to follow the law, Gravens has argued. "Registrants who come to report on the wrong days are routinely turned away and made to return on another day. ...The wait is far too long and is unacceptable," Gravens wrote in an email to police Chief David Brown in May 2014. The letter turned out to be prophetic. Two months later, Gravens was arrested for failing to register in that very office, even though he showed up there to do just that. The case is still being pursued by the Dallas County District Attorney's Office. If he is convicted, that would be Gravens' third felony.

Gravens' life on the sex offender list, first documented in an excellent 2012 Texas Observer profile, has been difficult, and he doesn't fit the profile of the violent or dangerous felon that his criminal record suggests. He is a rape victim himself, he said, repeatedly raped by neighbors when he was 6. When he was 12, he molested his 8-year-old sister. "Like, where my body part touched her body part," he told the paper at the time. "It was never penetrative. Obviously, it couldn't have been what they call consensual, but it was playing." His mother called a Christian counseling center for advice; instead, the counselor said that, by law, they'd have to report his crime to the police. Because of his sister's age, Gravens received an "aggravated" enhancement to the charge and spent four years in juvenile hall. The story reported that Gravens' sister since forgave him. As an adult, struggling to find and keep work, he was arrested and charged a second time, when was gone on a work trip to Washington for a month and didn't register his new address in time. After the Texas Observer story came out, a judge agreed to remove Gravens from the public sex offender registry.

Gravens still must register any changes in his life to the Dallas Police Department's sex offender registration office, on Wednesdays between 8:30 am and 2 p.m. The process has improved a little in the past year, he says. But, he argues, it's still more like punishment than the civil procedure it's supposed to be. He remembers that one detective didn't believe him when he reported his employment with the Soros fellowship. The small room can have lines snaking out the door, with waits lasting up to five hours. On a recent Wednesday, 12 men sat in the room, silently waiting for a detective to call one back. By noon, one man said he had been there since 9 a.m.

Gravens' arrest for his third felony took place in front of a reporter from Reason last year, whom he had invited to watch him register. Gravens had recently moved, unexpectedly, he says, because he had separated from his wife. But in the Dallas registration office, the detectives told him he was registering too late. "The law says you have to register the fact you are going to move seven days before the move, too," the officer argued, and arrested Gravens on the spot, as the Reason reporter watched.

That arrest was nearly a year ago, but the District Attorney's Office is still pushing the case. Court hearings continue to be delayed. During his scheduled hearing last week, the case didn't go before the judge. Prosecutors instead offered Gravens a plea deal, but he says he plans to take the case to a jury trial. He doesn't want another felony on his record.

"We do feel like an offense was committed and the grand jury returned a true bill indictment," says Messina Madson, the top assistant of District Attorney Susan Hawk. While Gravens worries that a third felony conviction would put him in prison for 25 years, Madson asserts that the sentence would be shorter. The case is being handled by prosecutor Gary McDonald. "He's telling me that there's no enhancement paragraph," to Gravens' charges, Madson says, and without that enhancement, Gravens' sentence would be a maximum of 10 years. Yet the indictment we reviewed afterward shows that Gravens' charge is in fact enhanced; Madson didn't return calls and emails afterward to explain the discrepancy.

Gravens' next court hearing is May 21. He has been told that the prosecutors are planning to present him a new indictment, he says, but he still hasn't seen it. Now that his Soros fellowship is complete, he's looking for new work -- though job prospects obviously aren't good when there's a chance he may go away to prison for a decade or two.

Send your story tips to the author, Amy Silverstein.

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn