Observer Story Wins SPJ Award


Dave Mann

When Texas Observer staff writer Emily DePrang first met Josh Gravens in early 2012, his life was in shambles.

The 25-year-old husband and father was still suffering for a mistake he had made when he was 12 years old. As Emily would later write in her June 2012 cover story, Life on the List—which yesterday won a national Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists—Josh had sexual contact with his sister when he was 12. “It was never penetrative,” Josh said. “Obviously, it couldn’t have been what they call consensual, but it was playing.”

Emily detailed what happened next: “Josh’s sister told their mother, who was alarmed. She wanted to ensure that, even if Josh’s intentions were only curious, he learned appropriate behavior right away. She called a Christian counseling center near their home in Abilene and described what happened. She was informed that, by law, the center had to report Josh to the police for sexual assault of a child.

“The next day, Josh was arrested and sent into Texas’ juvenile justice system. He wouldn’t get out for three and a half years.”

When he finally did get out, Josh had to register as a sex offender, and his name would appear on the Texas sex offender registry for a decade.

Emily’s story vividly portrays what happens when children are placed on the sex offender list. In Josh’s case, the Texas criminal justice system had treated a kid much like it would treat a serial sex offender. The result is that one incident when he was 12 would continually sabotage his efforts to live a normal life. It followed him through high school and college, where he excelled academically but received death threats when local media did a story on sex offenders. Employers rejected of fired him when they learned his status. When Emily met Josh, he was a married father trying to support his family and start a career.

As Emily wrote, Texas’ sex offender registry had exploded to more than 76,000 names. The huge list makes little distinction between low-level, juvenile offenders like Josh, who a mountain of research shows almost assuredly won’t re-offend, and adult, predatory sex offenders. As Emily reported, the size of the sex offender list is counter-productive, obscuring the truly dangerous sex offenders on a massive list.

This was a difficult subject, one that many reporters wouldn’t have the courage to take on. But Emily did, and she wrote one hell of a story.

When a Texas judge read Emily’s piece, he worked to remove Josh from the sex offender registry. Now, Josh is no longer a registered sex offender. He’s a finalist for a Soros Justice Fellowship to educate lawmakers about the unintended consequences of placing juveniles on public sex offender registries.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Emily’s story helped change Josh’s life. This is impact journalism at its best. And yesterday the Society of Professional Journalists recognized Emily’s work with its Sigma Delta Chi award for Public Service in Magazine Journalism. We hope that the story has raised awareness about the plight of children on the sex offender list. Congratulations to Emily for well-deserved recognition of her work. And we wish Josh luck working to keep other kids from suffering his fate.