In Pa., Former Lawmaker Takes In Sex Offenders

Tom Armstrong, a former Pennsylvania state lawmaker, has taken three sex offenders into his home in Marietta. His actions have sparked anger in his community. Armstrong says his own thinking on the issue evolved after his brother's incarceration and the word of God.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Of all the examples of the NIMBY phenomenon - NIMBY as in, not in my backyard - few are so emotive as the housing of convicted sex offenders. Sex offenders are typically registered. There are restrictions as to where they can live. Alarmed neighbors have been known to post public warnings that a sex offender is in the neighborhood.

Our next story is about an unusual person who has gone against the grain and taken in three sex offenders to live in his home in Marietta, Pennsylvania.

Tom Armstrong is a former Pennsylvania state legislator known in Harrisburg, the state capital, as a conservative, a tough opponent of criminals, taxes and abortion.

Tom Armstrong, why then? Why do you take in three men to live in your house?

Mr. TOM ARMSTRONG (Former State Legislator, Pennsylvania): Well, I guess you'd say there's been an evolution in my own thinking, and I've had a brother who was incarcerated for five years. It began to wake me up. I've also been convicted of the word of God in many different instances that we need to reach out to those who have been imprisoned, and we need to consider them as if we are in their place.

With this evolution, I became involved with an organization called Justice and Mercy over the past, roughly eight years. And sex offenders has become one thing that I've been challenged to do something about.

SIEGEL: Let me read to you, though, what one of your neighbors from Marietta, Elizabeth Fulton, is quoted as saying in an Associated Press story. She said, "I understand how everybody deserves a second chance and all, but I'm not willing to risk my children and my neighbors to find out if they are rehabilitated or not." And one of the three men, I gather, has an offense involving children. Fair?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Well, we - unfortunately, we all make crazy, stupid mistakes, say, this guy has very repented. I think the issue is not so much what he did but where he is today and what all he's trying to do to show that he is a different person. He comes to me, recommended by, actually, a public defender who reached out to me and their family to state that they believe that he's a man that's really doing everything he can to show that he is worthy of a second chance.

SIEGEL: But what do you say to the mother of small children who lives down the road from you who says, I just don't want to have what amounts to a small institution of people who have done terrible things to others?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Well, I would say that - I mean, I understand her first fears along those lines, but I think if - number one, you need to look at the issue. We have 400 sex offenders already live in Lancaster County. Only four of them are actual sexual violent predators. None of my guys are sexual violent predators. And then I will also state, you still teach your children the things that we were all taught: Don't get into cars with strangers. But we're saying, you watch these guys with a healthy skepticism, but give them a chance. And if they can prove themselves, then allow your own thinking and your own hearts to be open at that point.

SIEGEL: Something I want to ask you. I looked up on the Pennsylvania State Registry of sex offenders your town, and I found the names of the three men who now live at your house. You say they are non-violent sex offenders.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: That is correct.

SIEGEL: The names of the offenses that are listed on the registry are sexual abuse of children, rape and aggravated indecent assault.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: The names of the offenses that listed on the registry sound more menacing than these were all non-violent offenders.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, that's very unfortunate. The labels themselves carry a picture. But if you actually dig into the truth of what the specifics are - when you say did rape, it was actually a date rape-type of the situation. When you delve into the specifics, you understand that there were some stupid, stupid, stupid mistakes that some of these guys made. And if they want to build a new life, then there needs to be people out there that are ready to stand with them, walk with them, and see that new person come forth.

SIEGEL: Tom Armstrong, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Tom Armstrong lives in Marietta, Pennsylvania with his son and three convicted sex offenders.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.