Josh Gravens

Tyrant’s Foe: Josh Gravens Fights Criminal Justice Policies that Hurt Children


A version of this story ran in the November 2014 issue.

When I met Josh Gravens, he was 25 years old, unemployed and living with his older sister in Dallas. He’d most recently worked at a stand that sold Christmas trees and firewood, but his paychecks often bounced, and since then he’d applied for hundreds of jobs. That was March of 2012, when Gravens and his wife and four children were getting by one day at a time.

Life is tough for any young family, but Gravens’ life was harder than many because, at the time, he was a registered sex offender. I interviewed him for the Observer story “Life on the List” (June 2012), a look at Texas’ practice of including children on its public sex offender registry. When Gravens was 12, he twice had sexual contact with his younger sister. Alarmed, his mother called a therapist, who was required by law to report Gravens to police. He spent the next three and a half years in the Texas Youth Commission—the state’s jail system for kids. If he’d committed any other kind of wrong, Gravens’ juvenile record would have been sealed when he turned 18, but because he was listed on the registry, his offense followed him into adulthood, costing him jobs, homes and his college career.

“If I could begin to create real change, the amount of lives that would be adversely affected by not beginning that conversation—it was like, ‘Josh, you gotta do this.’”

Yet when I met him, Gravens was beyond upbeat. He was downright perky. After spending half his life hiding, he’d decided to tell his story in the Observer because the possibility that it might help other people outweighed his desire for secrecy. Gravens has always wanted to serve others but feared his history would limit his potential. “‘Life on the List’ was the beginning of my advocacy,” he says. “The Texas Observer article went national, and [among] advocates who were working on this, I became known all across the country as the guy who was a [registered] kid who’s now speaking out.” Gravens also used the article to find his judge from years before and successfully petition to have his registration made private, so only law enforcement can see it.

Then Gravens met Nicole Pittman of Human Rights Watch. She’d been researching children on the sex offender list for years and was impressed with Gravens’ buoyant intelligence and hunger for service. Pittman suggested Gravens develop a project and apply to the program she was currently in: the prestigious Soros Justice Fellowship.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know what the heck that is,’” Gravens recalls. “I mean, what’s a project? What is anything? … Am I prepared? I don’t have a bachelor’s degree. I had been working manual labor jobs.”

What convinced him to try was the 2010 film Conviction, the mostly true story of a high school dropout who became a lawyer to help overturn her brother’s murder conviction. “The message I took from it was, nobody else in my circumstance has the privilege to put their life on hold so they can wait for change,” he says. “Nobody else can afford that. If I could begin to create real change, the amount of lives that would be adversely affected by not beginning that conversation—it was like, ‘Josh, you gotta do this.’”

And he did. Gravens got the Soros Justice Fellowship for a project to educate lawmakers about the effects of placing children on the registry. But as he learned more, he says, “What I found was, what’s even worse is the treatment that we’re putting kids in,” which he says is “copied and pasted from the 1980s adult sex offender treatment.” He’s spoken to judges, churches and conferences about the psychological damage done to children by both the registry and the outdated treatment model. He also led a successful campaign to prevent Dallas County from eliminating in-person visitation at its jails.

Now he’s the chair of Texas CURE, a human rights group focused on organizing formerly incarcerated people and their families. “We are the voice of the people, of the one in four Americans that has a conviction. We’re a large demographic, but we’re also the least politically active,” Gravens says. “I came out of the system with an understanding of how it worked and an ambition that they were not going to take me down. And at the end of the day, it’s really about how you wake up in the morning. Do I wake up sad and bitter because of my life? Or do I wake up in the morning knowing that, no matter what anyone calls me, I have the willpower and the ability to make real change?”