ESPN The Magazine profiles Tony Washington, a promising 24-year-old football player whose career has been stalled by a conversation-stopping offense he committed eight years ago: When he was 16, he had consensual sex with his 15-year-old sister. Based on interviews with Washington, his sister, and other relatives, Allison Glock explains the context of this forbidden liaison: a troubled, dispiriting childhood in the rougher sections of New Orleans, where Washington was constantly threatened by violence and had few sources of emotional support. Although Washington overcame a deprived background to become a star player at Abilene Christian University in Texas, his taboo-breaking transgression will mark him until the day he dies. Under Texas law, "prohibited sexual conduct" triggers lifetime registration as a sex offender, putting him in the same category as rapists and child molesters. (As I noted a couple weeks ago, people who have sex with their first cousins, including spouses they legally married in other states, are covered by the same statute.) Although Washington had otherwise realistic hopes of being a second-round NFL draft choice, so far no team has been willing to accept the secondhand stigma of signing a registered sex offender. As I explain in a sidebar to Glock's story (available only in print), Washington's treatment highlights the failure of sex offender registries to distinguish between dangerous criminals and people who pose no discernible threat to public safety. It also shows how imposing registration on people who committed their crimes as minors—a category that includes thousands of people in the Texas sex offender registry—undermines a central purpose of the juvenile justice system by forcing people to bear the burden of their youthful mistakes for the rest of their lives.
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