Having sex with his now wife and the mother of his three children when she was a 14-year-old high school freshman earned Josh Strader a label he’s found impossible to shake: Tier II sex offender.
Now Strader, and countless others throughout Ohio, may get a break. Proposed changes to Ohio’s sex offender registry would give judges more discretion on what conditions are placed on those convicted of sex crimes and allow offenders like Strader to petition to get off the registry.
Without the changes, Strader — who was 19 when his wife Jennah got pregnant — would have to continue registering every 180 days for another 17 years.
The Straders are worried that sharing their story might impact negatively on their children, ages 8, 4 and 23 months. But they decided to come forward to give boost to changes proposed by the Ohio Sentencing Commission and the Criminal Justice Recodification Committee.
“If he’s able to get off the registry, it would tremendously change our lives in such a positive way,” Jennah said. “He would be able to be more interactive with our oldest daughter in school and sports. He would be able to be the father that he wants to be that he can’t be now.”
The Straders’ love story began very innocently — in church.
“He sent me a note in the pew and said, ‘Will you go out with me?’ and I said yes,” Jennah said.
She was a freshman at Springfield South High School and he was a senior attending the Springfield-Clark Career Technology Center. They’d been set up by a mutual friend who knew they were both into art. Their parents were aware of the age difference but didn’t think anything of it, both said.
“We’d see each other every Sunday and Wednesday at church, and on Fridays we would go (out). Back then the skating rink was cool, so we’d go skating Friday nights,” Jennah said.
The two teens were each in their first serious relationship. The first time they had sex, she became pregnant. She was just shy of her 15th birthday and he had turned 19, so a counselor was required to inform law enforcement.
What happened next was confusing for the young couple, Jennah said.
“We just thought it would end up being nothing,” she said. “We would go through court and the judge would see that we were both young kids and we had made a mistake.”
But Josh, now 28, was convicted of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. Because of their five-year age difference, the crime was a felony that labeled him a Tier II offender that requires him to register until 2033, when his oldest daughter will be 25.
The couple was so young when the judge handed out the sentence, which included suspended jail time, they said they didn’t understand how much his registration status would impact every aspect of their lives.
“If my daughter has problems going on at school, he can’t go talk to the principal, I have to do it on my own,” said Jennah, who is studying to be a nurse. “If she has to be picked up early because she’s ill, I have to do it on my own.”
Both Ohio law and Beavercreek City Schools policies allow registered sex offenders to be on school property for legitimate purposes, such as for an event in which their child is participating. The district does not allow sex offenders to volunteer with any school activities or coach sports teams.
Jennah said the couple has received conflicting information about when her husband is allowed at school, and they are cautious not to step over the line.
More discretion sought
The proposed changes to Ohio’s law would switch from an offense-based classification system to a more risk-based system. The crime of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor would be moved to a Tier I offense — a lesser designation that requires registration for 15 years — no matter the age difference.
It wouldn’t apply retroactively, but there is a proposal to allow offenders currently on the registry to petition for a change of tier or to get off the registry completely.
Tier II offenders such as Josh Strader could petition once they’ve successfully registered for 10 years, which he’s approaching.
Judges would also have more leeway when initially sentencing Tier I and II offenders. If circumstances warranted, a judge could say an individual is not a risk to re-offend and doesn’t need to register.
The proposal is not a slam-dunk to get approved. Lawmakers would need to pass a bill to implement the recommended changes, which won’t happen at least until next year.
‘It affects our entire lives’
For families like the Straders, that removal of the label means a big change in lifestyle.
“Being on the registry affects getting jobs, housing … it affects our entire lives,” Jennah said. “It’s almost like being a single mother sometimes.”
Jennah said people make false assumptions about her husband because of the label.
“Even after hearing the story of what happened, they can’t wrap their mind around somebody who’s on the registry who never hurt anybody, who never sexually assaulted anybody,” Jennah Strader said. “They just automatically go to ‘he’s a child molester, he’s a rapist.’ They don’t think we were young kids and we made a bad decision and now we’re paying for it.”
She hopes if the changes to Ohio’s law are made that judges will be willing to look at each individual situation that comes before them.
“Give the people who are in the situation a chance to tell what happened and to look at how it’s going to affect their life in the future,” she said. “We want productive people of society and when you do this you take away their right to be a productive member of society.”
Although she got pregnant as a ninth-grader, the couple waited to get married until she finished high school. She says she has no regrets.
“I wouldn’t take a single minute away from our relationship,” said Jennah. “His grandparents actually were the same age as us when they got married and had children and they’ve been married for almost 50 some years now.”
STAYING WITH THE STORY
I-Team reporter Katie Wedell conducted a months-long investigation into how Ohio nursing homes balance providing care to those who need it while protecting a vulnerable population from those who have committed sex crimes. She has followed up with lawmakers on possible next steps to address the issues identified, including reporting on the current proposed changes to the registry law. We’ll continue to follow possible changes to Ohio’s sex offender laws as the General Assembly meets next year.