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Do Sex Offender Registration Laws Do Any Good?

The Detroit Free Press takes a skeptical look at a system that treats public urinators like predators.

Detroit Free PressDetroit Free PressLast month a federal judge ruled that certain aspects of Michigan's Sex Offenders Registration Act (SORA) are unconstitutionally vague. Sex offenders, for example, are forbidden to live, work, or "loiter" within 1,000 feet of "school property." U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland noted that such "school safety zones" are not clearly defined, making it difficult to comply with the law. He said the term loiter is vague as well: Does it apply, say, to people attending their children's parent-teacher conferences or their grandchildren's school plays? Cleland said two other rules—requiring registrants to report all email addresses they "routinely used" and all vehicles they "regularly operated"—presented similar compliance challenges. "SORA was not enacted to serve as a trap for individuals who have committed sex offenses," he wrote. "Rather, the goal is public safety, and public safety would only be enhanced by the government ensuring that registrants are aware of their obligations."

In a follow-up story published yesterday, the Detroit Free Press casts doubt on that public safety rationale. "While [laws like SORA] may have helped parents rest easier," writes reporter L.L. Brasier, "there is no evidence that they stopped sexual predators." There was never much reason to think they would, especially since the vast majority of sexual assaults on minors are committed by people without prior convictions who know their victims well, as opposed to strangers who might be flagged by an online database. 

Meanwhile, the burdens imposed by registration requirements, which include a stigma that poisons relationships and ruins job prospects, could make recidivism more likely. "These laws destroy what's valuable about someone's freedom," University of Michigan law professor J.J. Prescott tells Brasier. "You're a pariah virtually everywhere, you can't live in most neighborhoods, and nobody wants to date, marry, or socialize with you. You can't find a job because no one will hire a sex offender....These laws take away their reasons for staying on the straight and narrow, for working hard to become a valuable member of a community."

The case for registration is especially weak when states make little effort to distinguish between low- and high-risk offenders. As Brasier notes, the overall recidivism rate for sex offenders is much lower than commonly believed. Yet Michigan's registration system classifies offenders based purely on the crime of conviction, without regard to other factors that make recidivism more or less likely. Worse, it includes minor, nonviolent offenders such as public urinators and teenagers who have consensual sex with younger girlfriends. Offenders must continue to register for periods ranging from 15 years to life even if their records are expunged. Michigan's wide net is reflected in the fact that it has more registered sex offenders per capita than all but three other states (Oregon, Arkansas, and Delaware).

Brasier cites several examples of sex offenders who are forced to register even though they do not pose a threat to the general public, including a Florida couple arrested for having sex on a public beach and a Michigan man convicted of having sex with the woman who is now his wife. As long as states mix such offenders in with predatory criminals, it is hard to take their claims of protecting public safety seriously. 

I highlighted the problems with registration requirements and other policies aimed at sex offenders in a 2011 Reason feature story. More from Reason TV:

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  • Zombie Jimbo||

    Delaware has more sex offenders than most states? Has anyone seen Uncle Joe, he was down by the Amtrak station?

  • AlmightyJB||

    Lucky Uncle Joe

  • LynchPin1477||

    While [laws like SORA] may have helped parents rest easier

    Is that even true? Or have they contributed to hysteria when someone who isn't actually a sexual predator but is registered anyway moves into the neighborhood?

  • RBS||

    Probably one of those things where it sounds nice in theory, "oh, I can just look on the internet and see if this guy is a sex offender" but in reality is pretty shocking "Oh shit, there's 45 sex offenders within 3 miles of my house."

  • np||

    Lori Petty, a legal secretary, has been logging on regularly over the years as she raised her two sons in Commerce Township.

    "If they were going over to a friend's house to visit, I would look to see who lived nearby, if there was a high concentration," she said. "Not that there was anything I could do, but it helps to know."

    Her sons are now 18 and 25, and she monitors the site less frequently, using it to see who may have moved close by, she said.

    "I want to know who is living in my neighborhood."


    There you go.

  • Sunmonocle Backwards Tophat||

    "I want to know who is living in my neighborhood."

    She's a gossiping pervert. I used to lifeguard in high school for a private residential pool, and all the women would talk about are other people in the community. In particular, they loved the sex stuff, like rumors of affairs and the returning college girls' activities.

    Sex is a very private thing for a lot of people, yet sex crimes are dealt with in the most public manner possible. From publishing mug shots of guys who are entrapped by "prostitutes" to men registering on the registry for consensual activity, the public loves blowing people's sex lives open.

    The Law & Order TV series has been completely handed off to SVU, which is focused on sex crimes; it's what the public wants. At what point do people's constant sex-ghost-sightings become projection?

  • MarkLastname||

    Reminds me of what Charles DeGaulle said: "In America, sex is an obsession; in Europe, it's a fact."

  • Invisible Finger||

    And they want to know SHE is living in THEIR neighborhood.

  • WC46||

    Not only that, but have you ever considered the reality that in more cases than not, the active child molesters perpetrating their crimes are NOT previously identified and registered offenders, but ones who have never been caught and have been flying below the radar for years. A vast majority of those caught molesting children have NO prior criminal record of any kind.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Well, these laws do help me, the voter, determine which leader is concerned about the well-being of my children and which leader is a Holocaust-denying 9/11 pedophile.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    And the way to bet is, if he's strong for sex offender registries, he's a "Holocaust-denying 9/11 pedophile."

    Or, in other words, a typical example of the Political Class.

  • ||

    Dude across the street from me for 9 years was on the sex offender list. Being old and legally blind I wasn't particularly afraid that he was going to go on a kidnapping and rape spree. How does a legally blind guy get convicted of downloading underage porn on the Internet anyhow? His lawyer should be on a registry.

  • LynchPin1477||

    Maybe the images were translated into a series of clicks?

  • Stormy Dragon||

    Being old and legally blind I wasn't particularly afraid that he was going to go on a kidnapping and rape spree.

    *puts Brett L. on the registry for dangling his particple in public*

  • Invisible Finger||

    How do you think he went blind???

  • MarkLastname||

    Well, he masturbated a lot, so that would explain it. And the hairy knuckles and all the kittens God has been killing in that neighborhood in recent years.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Brasier cites several examples of sex offenders who are forced to register even though they do not pose a threat to the general public, including a Florida couple arrested for having sex on a public beach and a Michigan man convicted of having sex with the woman who is now his wife.

    Since when are scarlet letters about posing "a threat to the general public"?

  • ||

    Its for the good of society, HM. Occasionally, lives must be ruined so other lives can be saved. Maybe. Like slavery used to do. But moral under our current societal model of norms.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

  • Stormy Dragon||

    SORA was not enacted to serve as a trap for individuals who have committed sex offenses

    It wasn't?

  • The Tone Police||

    That was my thought as well.

  • WC46||

    You said it!! You could have fooled me!! Look at the Louisiana sex offender registry law. The fee is outrageous and prisoners just being released cannot get the fee waived. If they can't pay, they can't register. If they don't register, it's right back to jail. Now you tell me that the sex offender registry laws aren't a booby trap cleverly crafted to allow the state to lock a registered citizen up at will.

  • np||

    A few months ago, he sought to have his criminal history cleared. The stepchild who made the allegations wrote the court, asking that his criminal conviction be expunged. A judge agreed and removed the conviction.

    Yet he still remains on the sex offender registry. The law doesn't allow even those who have had their criminal histories cleared to be removed from the list.


    The lawyer who suggested he agree to the plea deal instead of fighting it should've told him that it's a trap!

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Then he should have taken his case to Adm. Akbar and Associates.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    They're probably indulging the pretense that being on a public-shaming list isn't a criminal punishment.

    Earlier generations made clear that wearing a scarlet "A," being in the stocks, getting stuck in the dunking stool, etc., were all criminal punishments. They wouldn't have swallowed any guff about the stocks being a "regulatory restriction" or whatever the euphemism is.

  • MarkLastname||

    Also, prison isn't about punishment either; it's about rehabilitation, or protecting those on the outside, ya know, just in case. So I suppose by their logic, as long as we say it isn't a punishment, due process isn't required.

  • WC46||

    Well-said. It is every bit about ensuring the registered citizen NEVER has ANY SEMBLANCE of a NORMAL life. Not only the offenders, but their families who did NOTHING WRONG.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The witch hunting morons who rode this cause to power should be burned at the stake, as should the swine who profited from the Day Care Child Abuse Ring panic, and the ones who are riding the Human Trafficking (I.E. "White Slavery III, the enslavening").

    Guillotine bait, the lot of 'em.

  • WC46||

    I like how you think. Add the producers and faithful watchers of Law & Order: SVU to that list. The faithful watchers probably buy into the sensationalized and outright false characterizations of sexual offenders. Some do re-offend, but I'd bet my money there are more that never commit another sex crime the rest of their lives.

  • Rich||

    Speaking of sex registries, just try searching for an image of L.L. Brasier.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Definately needs reform but this is about as low on any politicos to so list as you can get.

  • Robert||

    One ironic thing about this case is why the 1st plaintiff was required to register as a sex offender: In the course of robbing an establishment, he kidnapped the mgr. & her 14 YO son, and in Mich. kidnapping a minor is legally considered a tier 3 (most severe) sex offense. So it had nothing to do w sex, but that's not what he was challenging.

  • MarkLastname||

    Well, children are so sexy, clearly anything that has anything to do with them is a sex crime. I mean, why would anyone even look at a child other than with the idea of sex with said child in their mind? Damned perverts.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Thank god for databases. If only we had them back when sodomy, dancing, and alcohol were illegal.

  • Rich||

    Well, that's why we need to collect *everything*: in the future something might be illegal.

  • The Elite Elite||

    Yeah, kinda hard to take these sex offender registries seriously when they place a 19 year old that slept with his 17 year old girlfriend next to a 45 year old that raped a 12 year old.

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