Those who fight for a more equitable way to keep track of sexual predators won a big victory in Michigan last week. That is a state with some 44,000 names on its Sexual Offenders Registry list.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Cleland put his foot down and gave the Michigan legislature 60 days to rewrite its current “unconstitutional” registry statute. Last spring, Judge Cleland set a 90-day deadline for lawmakers to rework the law, but he was ignored. This time he’s serious.
Everyone agrees we need to keep track of career sexual criminals after they are released from prison. Once they’ve been convicted of violent sex crimes it follows that they might re-offend. A public safety monitoring system makes sense.
But understand that these state registries – there is one in every state – are bloated beyond belief with many names that shouldn’t be there. Registries were mandated by federal law in the mid-’90s to keep watch over ex-con pedophiles who sexually targeted children. Somewhere along the line we lost our way.
Included over the years have been: a 10-year-old female caught “playing sex” then branded with “criminal sexual conduct” charges. Teenage boys caught with high school girls. Drunks discovered urinating or streaking in public. Average citizens unjustly accused of sex crimes during ugly divorces. And men duped into believing that an intimate partner was not a minor when she was. Many of these people, often caught up in a moment of normal human passion, have been forced to register as sex criminals – for the rest of their lives.
Do we really want to lump these kinds of “criminals” in with hard-core sexual predators?
Cleland found Michigan’s Sexual Offenders Registration Act, enacted in 2006, illegally clawed onto the registry citizens who had committed offenses and served their time years before the law was ever enacted. He also concluded that a 2011 amendment to the SORA, which added confusing rules for juveniles, was unconstitutionally vague and overreaching. Among other things, that amendment allowed juveniles who met certain criteria to apply to escape the registry – but only after 25 years.
While the requirements and restrictions vary from state to state, it is undeniable that this system is destroying lives and taxing both public safety and social welfare programs. It’s a lifelong Scarlet Letter sentence.
Registrants must check in with law enforcement for decades after the offense. Their case details and personal information is shared with the public, including where they work and live. This, of course, is information any employer or landlord will see. The registrant cannot travel without checking in with another police department, nor be anywhere near where a child might be – even if their offense didn’t include a child – including their own home, a school, fast food restaurant, church, theater or mall. This can greatly restrict where a registrant can work or live. It can also make them targets of vigilante justice.
In 1999, a high school student in Oklahoma jokingly “flashed” female classmates and was arrested for indecent exposure. He was jailed for four months and ordered to register as a sex offender for at least a decade. The kid committed suicide a month before his 20th birthday.
In 2002, a woman in Georgia was convicted of sexual offenses for allowing her 15-year-old daughter to have sex in their home. She was not sentenced to jail, but she was forced onto the offender’s registry. Three of her children were put in foster care, and she had to leave the family home to live in a trailer “way off down a dirt road.”
In 2016, Ernest Leap of Oakview, Missouri, finally won a gubernatorial pardon for a crime both he and his two sons insisted never happened. For 27 years Leap had to live with the moniker “child molester” following a most ugly divorce. Ernest had won custody of his young boys but they would later tell the court their mother had forced them to lie about their father’s molestation.
It’s cases like these that make it clear every state needs to follow Michigan’s lead and check the fairness of its sex offender registry. Cut the bloat and focus monitoring on the most dangerous sex criminals among us.
www.DianeDimond.com; e-mail to Diane@DianeDimond.com.