By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
He crept into her bedroom at night to fondle her. She was only ten years old and defenseless against a grown man, her stepfather. The number of times it happened, he can't recall exactly, certainly fewer than five, maybe two or three, he says.
She never told. His wife never walked in on them. No friend of hers ever went to a teacher or parent. But the truth did come out.
It arrived in a letter. His wife opened it up as Jamil Crowley was driving away to North Carolina for a year, to break off all connections with his family, to lose himself in construction work.
Jamil wrote the letter. Aghast at what he had done, at what he had become under what he says was the pressure of being a young dad with a pile of bills, he confessed his sin.
A year later, he went back to Austin, where he sat in jail until his day in court. On October 7, 1991, he pleaded guilty to "sexual indecency with a child/sexual contact." He was assessed court costs, six years of probation and court-ordered counseling. He got divorced and his wife got custody of their daughter, half-sister to the girl he had abused.
In the 14 years since then, Jamil's life has been bittersweet. He went on to community college in Austin, then moved to Houston, where he got a B.A. in business administration from the University of Houston. He had a child from another relationship, a son now five, and two years ago he married Antoinette, a childhood friend from his days on Chicago's South Side. She has five children of her own. He eventually re-established a relationship with his daughter and says that a year ago, he got forgiveness from the stepdaughter he'd abused. He has resolved that nothing like that will ever happen again.
Although he had the training and the ability and although he passed the CPA exam, because of his felony conviction, Jamil can never be licensed as a CPA. He can work for a CPA firm, as he has done for the last ten years, but never as a senior partner, never the person in charge.
Education was and is important to Jamil. Even before his marriage to Antoinette, he'd raised one of her sons since the boy was 12. That son is now at the University of Texas on an academic scholarship. Jamil was a frequent visitor to his children's schools, where everyone knew him, he says.
So it was a shock last spring when he went to Eleanor Tinsley Elementary as usual to sit in on one of his children's classes and was stopped at the office. A new policy was in play; they asked him for his driver's license, and once they ran it through the machine, they knew something about him they hadn't known before.
He wouldn't be having a school lunch again.
That was the last straw for Jamil in what had become a life of some disappointment for him.
He decided to quit his job and try for a better one. He would pull the kids out of school. And he'd start an organization, made up of convicted felons like him who have stayed out of trouble and done everything that society says they should do since committing their crime, and who want their rights restored. He calls them restored citizens, not criminals.
"If I can't be readmitted into the family of citizens, then we are telling a lot of people a bunch of lies," he says. "I have done all the things we instruct people to do after they have fallen yet I'm still unemployable as it relates to my abilities and experience. I am uninhabitable as it relates to housing. My children are deprived of having their father's full participation in their lives."
Of course, Jamil Crowley has chosen to take on this crusade at probably the worst possible time. There is little tolerance for offenders of any sort, and thanks to ever-improving technology, we can now know exactly where convicted sex offenders are living. Punch their names or a zip code into the Texas Department of Public Service database and you'll find them. You'll get crime data, maps to their homes and their photographs, too. Look at their faces, and if it creeps you out enough, then go picket their houses or apartments, or track them down and beat them up. Drive them from the neighborhood. It's happening all over the country.
Who is going to embrace a man like that? Relatives. His mother. And who is being punished along with him? The wife and children who depend on him to survive. Six years' probation, what a joke. This was a life sentence.
America prides itself on second chances, but the limits to that are what trip up and embitter Jamil and others like him. He accepts some of the restrictions. He understands, even if he doesn't like it, that he could never volunteer as a Little League coach for his sons. He understands why someone probably wouldn't ever hire him to work in a school.
But he doesn't understand why his confession and conviction for child molestation should bar him from working for any CPA firm in the country. A conviction for embezzlement, yes. Sex offender, no.
His new job search isn't going well. He gets calls, interest and even face-to-face interviews, but when he tells them about his criminal history, it's over. He says some employers really want to hire him but can't work it through their legal departments.
Gary White of White-Orugboh did hire Jamil, and kept him with him for ten years.
"He was a good worker. He can't be licensed as a CPA. He can do all of the work. He's totally qualified. But he can't sign off on it."
White says when he hired Jamil, he didn't know of his criminal past, but Jamil eventually told him. If Jamil hadn't told him, White says, he wouldn't have known. Finding out didn't change things.
"It wasn't a problem. My particular work environment doesn't involve children. He worked in the office, not out in the field at all."
Wife Antoinette says she supports her husband and was never worried about him being around her children. What he did wrong was so long ago, she says. After all his hard work, why can't he get a job that gives him a chance to demonstrate more of his abilities, to help them to a better life?
This support comes with a heavy price. The Crowleys are about to be homeless. They have to be out of their rent house by October 1. They're out of savings, and the owner wants to sell the rental property. Their options are limited. They can't stay with family in town; there's not enough room. The Crowleys don't go to a particular church. Asked if they have any close friends, they come up empty.
They seem so isolated even before beginning on this crusade, you have to wonder, how is a man like this going to rally troops to a singularly unpopular cause?
They considered going into a shelter, but they're sure they're full with displaced folks from the hurricanes. Besides, because of his record, it isn't likely that Jamil would be admitted, and they don't want to be split up. Jamil and Antoinette haven't quite explained all this to her kids, a 15-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy, because they don't want to burden them. They figure they'll probably end up living in their black 1991 Dodge Ram conversion van, at least for a while. Which presents a whole other problem: Jamil's five-year-old. Jamil shares custody of his son with the boy's mother, and he knows there's no way she's going to let her son sleep in a van at night.
Another reason he doesn't want to go into the shelter is a control issue. "Once you go in a shelter, then people start putting pressure on you to do things the way they want you to do them," Jamil says. "Any kind of job. You're invisible again."
As Jamil puts it: "The screws are being tightened even further," with new housing restrictions going into effect across the country that keep out people convicted of certain crimes. In August, Brazoria decided that sex offenders cannot live within 1,000 feet of children in its town. Since it is so small, that effectively shuts off the whole town. Jamil first started renting their present house years before the sexual offenders registry. He's afraid now that no one will rent to them.
Antoinette, who has worked as a certified nursing assistant, doesn't work outside the home now. She spends her days homeschooling her children. Even before the incident at Tinsley Elementary, Jamil says, he was dissatisfied with the education the children were getting in public schools. So he's designed a curriculum, and he and Antoinette work with them each day. Mostly, he comes up with the ideas and she carries them out, he says. His mother thinks Antoinette should go to work, but he tells her that the $6 an hour that she'd probably bring in isn't going to keep them afloat.
That's his role, keeping things going, providing for them. But he won't go back to his previous job. He says he outgrew that years ago. He is determined to get the better job that he believes he deserves. That, or make it possible for others to get the jobs they should be able to get.
"I've been anonymous for 42 years, and I'm not looking for fame," Jamil says. "But it's time for me to step up."
Jamil has outlined big plans, including "an 11-city grassroots action initiative" wrapping up in Washington, D.C., with the Millions More Movement gathering.
In its initial form, however, the enterprise is not off to the smoothest of starts. Jamil's group, composed of his wife, one of his four brothers and a son, decided to go door-to-door the weekend before Hurricane Rita.
It did not go well. Even though it was in broad daylight, people in his southwest Houston neighborhood didn't like opening their doors to him and weren't receptive to the message of offenders' rights and the follow-up request for donations. "I learned a lot," he says. "You don't go knocking on doors of people whose houses have been broken into." There were some slammed doors, some very short conversations. "I've sold encyclopedias door-to-door and it was easier than this," he says.
"My mission stays the same. My method is evolving," he says, sitting on the couch in his living room. It's four days till move-out. His wife sits beside him; the kids are upstairs and their cousins are visiting.
He's decided another approach is needed. He's printed up flyers calling for an "Action Meeting! Criminal Conviction holding you back?"
His organization, the Redeemed Restored Citizens of America (RRCA), will be gathering at the Community of Faith Church, 1023 Pinemont, in far north Houston, where his brother (who is also a Wal-Mart manager) is a minister.
This way, Jamil explains, he could count on an audience sympathetic to his cause. If he distributes 5,000 flyers, he figures he'll get 100 to 200 people there, and if they each donate $10 to $20 to the cause, he'll be able to buy a laptop and maybe a camera to document how people's lives are being ruined.
The meeting will be on October 8. Even losing his home, he's trying to hold on to the telephone number there. It's the one listed on the flyer.
His mom calls all the time. She wants him to quit the crusade, certain that calling attention to himself will just get her son hurt. She wants them to put the kids back in public school so his wife can go to work. She seems certain that heartbreak is ahead.
Jamil remains resolute. He wants to know what the country is going to do with all its convicted felons. A large number of them are in their twenties. What are they supposed to do for the rest of their lives if they're barred from jobs and housing? Does this mean their families can live in only the worst neighborhoods?
And people think this is a black thing, he says. It's not; referring to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, he points out there are more incarcerated whites than blacks. "We've got to put a face on this. We have to show families, children."
He is optimistic that the American people will see that continuing to punish someone and his family for something he did ten or 20 years ago, with no continuing criminal behavior since then, is unfair. If the courts order people into counseling, then why doesn't any accompanying better behavior come with improved privileges, he asks.
In May, Bill Cosby came to Texas Southern University to deliver his speech on how black families need to emphasize education more. During that event, a full scholarship was offered to a student from Houston Community College, an ex-con who'd righted his life. Jamil refers to that to make his point. Yes, it was an emotional high point, and yes, it's great that guy will get a free education, he says. But will he be able to find a job with his record?
At the last minute, Jamil's plans to become homeless change. They're moving in with his brother the minister. Over the weekend Jamil donates blood twice, looking for gas money to keep going.
Jamil has decided to tell people right off that he's a convicted child molester. It's a power thing, he explains. Once you've said that, people don't have any leverage over you. You've said the worst yourself.
The question is: What are they going to say next?
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