The claim: An Iowan convicted of sex crimes was released from prison this year after changing gender identities
For months, misinformation has circulated online regarding a case involving an Iowan released from prison in January. The claims imply that the inmate was released because of a change in gender identity.
The Instagram account for The Savoy Show, which describes itself as an account for "Black American News & Entertainment," shared two mugshots of Josie Smith, a 23-year-old who was released from prison earlier this year after being convicted of making inappropriate sexual contact with a 3-year-old girl in 2012 and a 10-year-old boy in 2013. The Feb. 3 post had nearly 3,800 likes as of Friday.
Smith, who formerly went by the first name "Joseph," began going by Josie and using female pronouns in 2017, while in prison.
The Instagram post, which gives the appearance of a news headline, says, "Pedophile Who Molested 15 Kids Released From Prison After Identifying As A Transwoman." An email sent to the address listed on The Savoy Show's page was not returned.
Other stories and posts make similar claims, such as a Jan. 30 Daily Wire headline that says "Iowa Frees Child Molester From Prison Because He Identifies As A Woman. Their Reason Makes No Sense." The Blaze published a Feb. 1 op-ed with the headline "Iowa sex offender's release from prison over gender change is the climax of liberal perversion."
A Jan. 30 article in the National Review titled "Male Iowa Sex Felon to Be Released after Gender Transition" says the Iowa attorney general's office released Smith rather than committing her to a mental institution, "as recommended by the state's expert" because of the hormonal therapy associated with the gender transition.
Smith wasn't released early due to gender identity change
In 2012, Smith was charged with second-degree sexual abuse for an incident involving a 3-year-old female victim. At the time of the incident, Smith was 15 years old, according to Iowa court records.
In 2013, Smith was charged with lascivious acts with a child after being accused of molesting a 10-year-old boy, court records show.
A Jan. 31 report in the Sioux City Journal said Smith in 2014 received a 10-year suspended sentence and three years' probation. In 2015, Smith violated that probation and began serving prison time. Smith was originally set for release in mid-2018.
While serving the sentence, Smith admitted to other sexual abuse incidents as far back as 2011, according to a medical evaluation obtained by the Storm Lake Times. The physician's evaluation said Smith had admitted to abusing more than 15 victims, with ages between 1 and 13.
Smith has not faced any additional charges in connection with those admissions.
The report also found the likelihood of Smith reoffending within the next five years was above 20% due to a variety of factors. They included that Smith was younger than 25, had assaulted both male and female victims and not had a long-term relationship. Smith had been repeatedly molested as a child in Louisiana, starting at age 7, according to the Times.
According to the report, Smith also committed multiple infractions while incarcerated between 2015-18, many of them sexual.
The report recommended that following the completion of the sentence, Smith should be assigned to Iowa's civil commitment unit for sex offenders, where she could undergo a treatment program for an indefinite amount of time.
However, the Times reported that this preliminary report was based on Smith having a male's sex drive. Smith had begun receiving treatment for gender reassignment at the correctional facility after expressing the desire to switch gender identities in October 2017.
Beyond prison: Iowa's civil commitment
Iowa's civil commitment program, created in 1998 by the state's Sexually Violent Predators Act, provides treatment for sexual offenders at an Iowa mental health institute following their incarceration. To be committed, the state must prove in a separate proceeding that the offender is likely to commit more sexual offenses in the future.
Lynn Hicks, spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller's office, said in the last three years, the Iowa Attorney General's Office has used the process to commit 42 sexual offenders.
"The burden is on the state, and it is a high bar to prove a person is likely to reoffend," he told USA TODAY in an email.
The Iowa Attorney General's Office had planned to pursue actions that would commit Smith to a treatment program at the completion of her sentence. That process actually kept Smith in the correctional facility beyond the initially scheduled time for her release, Hicks added.
Hick said an evaluation by a state expert eventually showed that Smith did "not meet the criteria as a sexually violent predator," and the Iowa Attorney General's Office filed a motion to dismiss its case for civil commitment once it realized it didn't have enough of a case.
Role of changing hormones
Hormone changes could have played a role, according to Dr. Tracy Thomas, a forensic psychologist and former clinical director of Iowa's civil commitment unit.
Thomas told the Times that the state's statute for civil commitment requires the state to "essentially prove an offender has a chance of offending greater than 51% the rest of his life." Something like that becomes more difficult to prove when that offender lowers testosterone levels, which have a higher influence on sex drive than estrogen, the Times reported.
Hicks, who said he could not comment on the contents of the state expert's report, which is now sealed, also told the Times that "an offender's hormone levels are an important part of substantiating an offender's likelihood of recidivism."
In January, Smith was transferred to a residential treatment facility in Sioux City for her transitional release. Hicks said Smith is still required register as a sex offender and will be under supervision for the rest of her life.
Reports that she was released early due to her change in gender identity, or that the attorney general's office released her, are incorrect, Hicks said, and likely result from confusion about the state's civil commitment program, not a part of the original sentence.
"It is inaccurate to say that AG Miller released Josie Smith, or that Josie Smith was released from prison because of hormone levels or a sex change," he told USA TODAY. "Smith has served her prison sentence."
Our ruling: False
While The Savoy Show headline stating that Smith was released from prison after identifying as a woman could feasibly be read in a way that's true — the release did come more than two years after she began identifying as female — it carries the false implication that she was released from prison because of that change. That implication is shared in the Daily Caller and Blaze articles.
But those claims confuse Smith's original prison sentence with the separate civil proceeding that sought to commit Smith to a treatment program for sexual offenders following her incarceration.
The length of Smith's original prison sentence did not shorten due to the change in her gender identity.
The National Review article's claim that the attorney general's office is the entity that released Smith is also incorrect because the office is not responsible for releasing inmates.
According to local media reports, the state dropped its case seeking to commit Smith to that program once a state expert found there was not a case to demonstrate that she was a violent sexual offender with a high enough chance of reoffending.
Our fact-check sources:
The Savoy Show: Instagram post
National Review: Male Iowa sex felon to be released after gender transition
Sioux City Journal: Sex crimes felon released to Sioux City halfway house after gender change
Des Moines Register: Convicted of sex crimes as a man, felon no longer deemed threat because of gender change
Iowa Department of Human Services: Civil commitment unit for sexual offenders
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Iowan not released from prison due to gender change