Sex Crimes

The Perverse Penalties of Leper Lists

A federal appeals court finds little evidence that the burdens imposed by sex offender registries are justified.


Officially, the restrictions imposed by Michigan's Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) aim to keep former convicts on the straight and narrow after they're released from prison. But in practice, a federal appeals court said last week, the rules are so tenuously related to that goal and so burdensome that their main effect is inflicting additional punishment on sex offenders who have already completed their sentences.

The question addressed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit was relatively narrow: whether SORA is so punitive that applying it retroactively violates the Constitution's ban on ex post facto laws. But in resolving that issue, the court brought some long overdue skepticism to bear on laws that purport to protect the public from sex offenders, suggesting they make little sense even when they're constitutional.

The 6th Circuit was responding to a challenge brought by five men and one woman who committed sex offenses before the state legislature expanded SORA's requirements. "What began in 1994 as a non-public registry maintained solely for law enforcement use," the appeals court observed, "has grown into a byzantine code governing in minute detail the lives of the state's sex offenders."

That code, like similar laws in many other states, is based on the premise that sex offenders pose a special threat because they have especially high recidivism rates. But the appeals court noted that "Michigan has never analyzed recidivism rates despite having the data to do so," and research by the Justice Department indicates that sex offenders "are actually less likely to recidivate than other sorts of criminals."

SORA also was shaped by the misconception that sex crimes against children are typically committed by strangers, although the Justice Department estimates that 90 percent involve perpetrators who already knew their victims. A provision added in 2006 bars registrants from living, working, or "loitering" within 1,000 feet of a school, regardless of whether their crimes involved children.

That rule makes it hard for sex offenders to find housing, disqualifies them from work with multiple locations, separates them from their families, and prevents them from attending school events involving their children and grandchildren. Since those conditions are not exactly conducive to rehabilitation, it's not surprising that a 2013 study funded by the Justice Department found Michigan's residence restrictions were associated with an increase in recidivism. A 2011 analysis in the Journal of Law and Economics likewise found evidence that publicly accessible registries have a perverse effect on recidivism.

In 2011 legislators compounded the Michigan registry's stigma by dividing sex offenders into three tiers that supposedly correspond to the danger they pose. Those classifications, which are based entirely on the crime of conviction and do not involve any individual assessment, can be very misleading.

All of the plaintiffs in this case qualified for Tier III, supposedly the most dangerous category. Yet one of them was convicted at age 18 of having consensual sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend, while another was convicted of "a non-sexual kidnapping offense arising out of a 1990 robbery of a McDonald's." Although neither is a rapist or child molester, the appeals court noted, they face the same requirements, including lifetime registration that brands them as "moral lepers."

Another SORA provision added in 2011 requires that registrants notify police "immediately" and in person when they move, change their names, buy or borrow a car, enroll in school, start a new job, switch to a new email address, or plan to travel for more than seven days. "The requirement that registrants make frequent, in-person appearances before law enforcement," the 6th Circuit said, "appears to have no relationship to public safety at all."

The court concluded that "the punitive effects of these blanket restrictions…exceed even a generous assessment of their salutary effects." The implications of that assessment go far beyond the constitutional issue of retroactive penalties, calling into question the fairness and rationality of sex offender laws that endanger public safety by imposing gratuitous punishment.

© Copyright 2016 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. I would support such lists for the filthy and spiteful French.

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  2. Looks like Jacob has a soft spot for sex-addicted kiddie diddlers.

    1. Or he just wants to point out the unconstitutional civil restrictions for sex ex-cons who have done their time. Where in the constitution does it allow for non-prisoners to be prohibited from living near a school, must tell police when moving, traveling for 7 days or more, etc? Answer- nowhere.

      If people want to go after accused sex criminals then give these people jury trials and set sentences in decades, thereby letting juries and judges decide guilt and sentences.

      These civil restrictions are unconstitutional and everyone knows it. Nobody wants to stand up for the rights of disgusting sex perverts.

      1. Looks like someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.

  3. ...calling into question the fairness and rationality of sex offender laws...

    There's the money shot - the court assumes rationality was supposed to have some kind of place in all this. It doesn't. These things are just to have something for the peasants to wave their torches and pitchforks at. It's a small subset of the population that it's acceptable to openly stomp on.

    1. Justice = Revenge

      /the peasants

  4. My wife unsuccessfully tried to get someone off of the list - the judge pretty much said "yeah the sex offender list probably isn't constitutional but I can't do anything about it." Nice courage there! Of course elected judges don't want to risk losing the next election because they were "soft on sex offenders".

    1. Alright, now you need to tell us what you did to get on the list.

  5. The "Sex Offender" lists are effectively a way to brand the "unclean", without offending the general public by making them watch a living human being actually burned with a red hot iron. They allow the public to pretend on so many levels; They can pretend they are actually "doing something" about child abuse. They can pretend that the 19 year old that bedded their (willing) 15 year old daughter was a monster. They can pretend they actually know where all the "predators" are at any given moment. So MANY fantasies, all for the low price of destroying a few lives.


    1. Meanwhile the real offenders are able to keep doing bad stuff because the police focus on the (un)usual suspects. The police don't have to do real police work and they get to harass scarlet letter folks.

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