“Split Sentences” and the Right to Housing

    The room I rent in a Georgia boarding house for people on the sex offender registry costs $800 per month. It was the only release address I could find that was acceptable to the Georgia Department of Corrections, from which I got out on parole in September. There’s no minimum or maximum time I’m supposed to stay at this address. I can live here as long as I keep coming up with $800 a month, or leave if I ever find another place where my money’s good.

    Housing, no matter where you are, is almost never compliant with sex offender registry (SOR) restrictions. Specifically, the requirement of a minimum distance—1,000 feet, in my case—from any locations that accommodate children.

    Small Southern towns have a church on every corner. Bigger ones have schools or parks every few blocks. Apartment complexes in cities and other more urban areas usually have a pool, or a playground, or some other feature that makes them noncompliant.

    The few that are compliant I find during my work breaks, combing Facebook and Craigslist and local rental websites. Last weekend I drove out to a couple of the local trailer parks. I email the addresses to the Sheriff’s Department, and once they’ve run them I reach out to any that are compliant. Most aren’t willing to rent to someone on an SOR.

    I found one house listed by an older widow who really wanted to rent to a young woman looking to stay long-term. I explained about my felony conviction and about the SOR, and she said that was fine. She was renting a whole floor with a private entrance for $675 a month. I was elated. Later, when I followed up to make sure, she said she didn’t think there’d be any problems—unless of course I minded that her granddaughter sometimes visited on the weekends. Her granddaughter is a minor.

    Parole and probation both fall under the Georgia Department of Community Supervision. But the two are very different.

    When you’re on parole, it takes a lot less than that to send you back to prison, but you’re pushed toward those situations constantly if you’re also on an SOR. My first time out on parole, I was sent back to prison for getting a second job to cover my SOR expenses, which were as much as my rent and would have also led me back to prison if I’d been unable to pay them.

    I’m in a much better position this time around, so I don’t have to take that kind of risk. But I don’t want to live in this half-built boarding house surrounded by strangers and plywood and leaky plumbing for the rest of my life. I want something better.

    It’s possible that other counties might have more suitable options, but I’m afraid to leave this area—I have a decent parole officer (PO), and I don’t want to jinx myself. Georgia’s community supervision system tends to be a punitive one, and it’s rare to find yourself in a situation that’s very accommodating.

    I work 7 am to 7 pm weekdays, but I also have a 7 pm curfew, which makes it almost impossible to do basic errands or go anywhere that’s only open during conventional business hours. There’ve been times I’ve texted my PO asking if I could have 30 minutes after work to get groceries because I was out of food, and she’s treated me like a human and not like a piece of shit. If I moved to another county, I might not be allowed that time to get groceries.

    Release from prison is often described as “freedom,” but parole makes it more like a highly conditional amnesty. Parole and probation both fall under the auspices of the Georgia Department of Community Supervision. But the two are very different.

    The fact that they don’t take into account that we need housing is pretty shocking.

    In Georgia, we’re famous for punishing felony convictions with “split sentencing.” If a judge sentences you to what we call, for example, “15 do 10,” that means you’re sentenced to 15 years under state supervision altogether, and do 10 of them in prison. Then you have five years to do on probation.

    If your conviction comes with a mandatory minimum, you have to do all 10 years of that 10-year prison sentence. If it doesn’t, you can do some portion of those 10 years and then become potentially eligible for parole—early release from the prison portion of your sentence—at whatever point the State Board of Pardons & Paroles decides to give it to you.

    I was given a split sentence of “30, do 14.” In releasing me from physical custody inside a prison, the state is allowing me to serve the final year or so of my “14” in the community, before I begin serving my 16 years on probation. While I’m still serving the prison portion of my sentence, a revocation of my parole could be send me back at any time, for any reason.

    Probation might ultimately do the same. Split sentences have in some cases been shown to increase rates of reincarceration, due to heavier surveillance and tighter restrictions. But it might be more forgiving, and either way it’ll be less expensive, and after three years I can apply for early termination to hopefully live a life that’s my own again. It feels far away.

    I’m not far from Alabama. There are cities right across the border where I’ve started to look see if I can find anything viable, but I’m also terrified of moving to one of the few states that’s equally or more notoriously cruel than Georgia.

    When I was preparing for my release from custody, I knew that the SOR wasn’t designed for people to succeed and that the Parole Board didn’t care about us. But experiencing it firsthand is different. The fact that they don’t take into account that we need housing is pretty shocking. How can anyone defend a system that doesn’t allow you to live anywhere?



    Image of September monthly operational meeting of Georgia State Board of Pardons & Paroles via  Georgia State Board of Pardons & Paroles.

    • C is a writer and advocate interested in prison/criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, harm reduction and government/cultural criticism. She has studied history/theology with the Third Order of Carmelites and completed degrees in Systematic Theology. She is currently studying law.

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