Reason Podcast

Should We Abolish the Sex Offender Registry? A Debate.

Watch sociologist Emily Horowitz debate legal scholar Marci Hamilton at the Soho Forum.

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On February 12, 2018, Emily Horowitz debated Marci Hamilton about whether we should abolish the registry for convicted sex offenders. Horowitz is chair of the sociology and criminal justice department at St. Francis College, and Hamilton is the author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children.

The debate took place at the Soho Forum, which runs Oxford-style debates in which the audience votes on the resolution at the beginning and end of the event. The side that gains more ground is victorious. ?In this case, Horowitz—who argued for abolition—won overwhelmingly by convincing 33 percent of the audience to switch over to her side.

The Soho Forum, which is sponsored by the Reason Foundation, has a twofold mission: to provide an arena for intellectual adversaries to talk in paragraphs as opposed to 140 characters, and "to enhance social and professional ties within New York City's libertarian community." It's held at the Subculture Theater at 45 Bleecker Street in Manhattan, and after the debate wraps there's always free food and a cash bar. Doors open at 5:45, and the event convenes at 6:30—at which point the party has already begun.

Shot and edited by Micah Garen.

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  1. There is no authority in the Constitution for government to require people to register with government after they are out of jail and off parole or probation.

    There is definitely no authority to tell people where they can and cannot live or do because of some past criminal offense where the person is not in the custody of the state anymore.

  2. You would think that singling out one class of crime for such degrading and oppressive punishment would violate the 8th Amendment.

  3. Yes (speaking as someone who has family members on the list).

    I don’t think my family member should be on the list when he gets out of prison, even though I wish he was in prison forever. Once you are out of prison, you’ve paid your debt. If you need to be on a registry, you shouldn’t get out of prison.

    1. If you need to be on a registry, you shouldn’t get out of prison.

      Stop giving them ideas!

      1. or, they would have to realize many on the list are not actually dangerous. Some guy peeing in a park walking home from the bars drunk… that should be a fine or community service or something. Not lifetime on a sex offender registry.

      2. Civil confinement already exists.

    2. “I don’t think my family member should be on the list when he gets out of prison, even though I wish he was in prison forever.”
      A friend of mine served on a jury years back. After it was over, he mentioned he (and the jury) found the defendant ‘not guilty’, but that was his education regarding the difference between ‘not guilty’ and ‘innocent’.
      The guy was a scumbag, but the prosecution did not prove he had done as they had claimed; it was a child molest case.
      The defendant, by the rule of law was found not guilty, and even if he was a scumbag, he avoided ‘listing’, so he was free to live and do as he pleased.
      How many false-positives are directed to live out in a swamp because the jury found otherwise?

      1. At the federal level, only about 3% of criminal cases ever go to a jury. The other 97% end up with a plea agreement. That doesn’t mean the 97% are guilty (do you really think law enforcement and prosecutors are right 97% of the time?), it means that the prospect of going to trial with more and more severe charges scares defendants into taking whatever plea is offered. Even if the defendant is innocent. The number of innocent people convicted and listed on the registry is probably shocking.

    3. Absolutely. The one-size-fits-all approach is ineffective, nonsensical and very possibly exacerbates matters.

      Some need to be separated from society indefinitely, such as the more pathological varieties, but the current approach makes very little distinction. Logically, it endangers everyone.

    4. I say the same thing about voting rights, and gun rights: If you cannot be trusted with them, why are you out?

  4. And as if on cue, states consider a similar registry for animal abusers.

    1. New York is among 11 states considering registry proposals. They could follow Tennessee, which launched its registry in 2016, along with municipalities in recent years including New York City.

      The other states considering registries are Hawaii, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington.

      California must be distracted.

    2. Same unconstitutional notion that the government has some enumerated power to require people to check in with them or they can be sent to jail.

    3. Luckily there isn’t a registry for self-abusers.

  5. I don’t mind a sex offender registry or any registry of convicted criminals. I just don’t care for the government doing it.

    I don’t see why anyone has a right to privacy over their past public crimes.

    Also, on the long list of liberties the government impedes on, this is about last on my priority list.

  6. This registry is hell on earth. It brings fear to the public and ruins peoples lives even after they have done their time. Who in their right mind can say this protects a child? It doesn’t! Abolish it. It’s unconstitutional and goes against on rehabbing people and giving them a second chance. Abolish the registry forever.

  7. California does this for Arson and other convictions under the assumption that some arsonists may get asexual thrill from arson, therefore all do.

    1. One wonders whether those legislators got a sexual thrill from implementing that.

      1. I mean, whether *some* of those legislators *might have*.

      2. Indeed. It’s curious. Completely plausible that many of these laws and the rhetoric are some politicians’ projections. Most people don’t think “sex” when publicly urinating in proximity to others.

  8. So if most of us here are in support of curtailing or abolishing the registry, who’s against it?

    I’d like to say that it be abolished for non-violent crimes and have limited time periods for violent crimes, but the government isn’t so great at managing such incredibly complicated situations.

    I think if the rationale for a policy includes some form of, “it’s for the children,” it’s probably a bad policy. If you’re utilizing that much pathos in your argument, you’re probably lacking in ethos and logos.

  9. My entire problem with the registry is that people have the mindset that “sex offender” = “pedophile”, when they may be just an ordinary adult rapist. If someone isn’t so dangerous that they must be behind bars, then they should have all of the freedoms every other citizen enjoys.

  10. Short answer: Yes

    Long answer: That civil incarceration shit they keep pulling after people serve their sentences is double jeopardy, and everybody knows it.

  11. Was anyone able to get through more than 2 minutes of the “anti” woman that can give me a synopsis? I’d rather listen to Fran Drescher debate Rosie Perez over the proper number of fingernails to use on the blackboard than another second of her moralizing.

  12. The problem in my opinion is not whether there is or is not a registry. It’s that any offender needs to be on it. A 15 year old can be convicted of child pornography (by having their girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s naked/half naked picture on their phone) and have to register on the registry. So this person, who really did nothing wrong has to register and be seen by others as being a sex offender. A 19 year old dating a 17 year old could also wind up there. Where’s the logic in that? The registry should only be for people who commit REAL sex crimes. Pedophiles and Rapists (real rape, not statutory) only.

  13. For those arguing for the abolishment of this list… I want you to find someone who has kids that they have NO RIGHT to know if their new neighbor has been convicted of sexually assaulting toddlers?

    I want you to find a woman and tell her that the man living in the apartment across the hall has been convicted of rape 3 times? How will you tell her that she should mind her own business?

    I think the sex offender list needs to be revised of course.

    A homeless man not being able to or not being allowed into a public restroom, and relieving themselves behind a store should NOT get put on that list. A couple engaging in sex in a car in an empty parking lot at 1 in the morning should NOT be put on the sexual offender registry (sadly it would probably be the man put on and not the woman… Male privilege and all). A couple who are 16-17 and 18-19 probably should not be on any list or registries either.

    But a rapist, a child molester, a flasher, a child pornographer should ALL be on the list, and should be on the list for life, as there is NO helping these kinds of people… As for people who simply possess Child Porn, by consuming Child Porn you create a market where no market previously existed… Therefor, someone will come forward to fill that need, and in order to fill that need, children MUST be harmed.

    I am not implying that drawn art should be illegal though, as long as no child was harmed in making it, maybe that can be a legal outlet for people with deviant needs.

    1. So many strawmen and false assertions.

      Bottom line, the list in unconstitutional, ineffective at it’s stated purpose and inhumane to the people on it. The not-rapists and the actual-rapists who did their time. It survives on the notion that sex offenders are amoral monsters who will re-offend the moment they have opportunity, or that people have the right to an inventory on closet skeletons of their neighbors.

      Unless one wants to argue for a homicide registry, a fraud registry, a jaywalking registry, etc. then you are clearly just a person who thinks people convicted of sex crimes are icky, and deserve extra degrading treatment once they are free.

      1. Sex Offenders ARE a-moral monsters… What else would you label a person who molests a 8 year old? What else would you label a man who rapes his drugged girlfriend or strong arms a woman into an alley and takes her by force?

        Are you so left-leaning that you consider these people victims? I have NO sympathy or pity for a sexual predator. Can we revamp the registry to not include less or non-violent offenders? I would be happy to agree.

        1. Sex Offenders ARE a-moral monsters…

          Evidently, you are as well.

          What else would you label a person who molests a 8 year old?

          What do you label a 17 year old who exchanges semi-naked photographs with his 15 year old girlfriend?

          Are you so left-leaning that you consider these people victims?

          You are apparently so left leaning that you are willing to walk over freedom of association, due process, and individual liberties with jackboots.

    2. For those arguing for the abolishment of this list… I want you to find someone who has kids that they have NO RIGHT to know if their new neighbor has been convicted of sexually assaulting toddlers?

      Nobody is denying anyone’s “right to know”. You can “know” whatever you like. All the court records are public and you can find out whatever you like about your neighbors. Heck, in a free society, you could even establish your own sex-offender-free HOA where people have to prove that they have never been convicted of a crime.

      What is wrong is for the government to maintain a list based on arbitrary criteria, impose restrictions on freedom of association, resulting in a lifetime punishment of people far beyond anything justified by what they did or the risk they pose.

      But a rapist, a child molester, a flasher, a child pornographer should ALL be on the list, and should be on the list for life, as there is NO helping these kinds of people…

      Well, I think you should be on that list as well: you are obviously mentally deranged and have serious hangups about sexuality.

  14. This debate was about the sex offender registry, and yet Marci Hamilton didn’t even talk about it. She just talked endlessly about “the children.” She is a comical straw man version of the argument that ms. Horowitz so graciously described and debunked at the very beginning.

    How do you choose who to invite to these debates? Why was she not informed that this was not a child abuse debate? That is a secondary issue, and no one disagreed with her that something should be done to attempt to prevent these crimes from happening… we all want to protect children. I kept waiting for Gene or someone to direct her back toward the resolution.

    She agreed that children should not be on the registry and she even seemed ok with adults who did not abuse children being able to avoid the registry. She even thought the actual punishments of the registry were off-base… She just kept harping on about “MUH KHIDS!” I would like to see this topic debated again by someone who actually supports the registry, and not this random angry lady who doesn’t even seem to understand what event she got invited to.

    1. I would like to see this topic debated again by someone who actually supports the registry, and not this random angry lady who doesn’t even seem to understand what event she got invited to.

      I am fairly certain she really REALLY likes the registry. She’s also probably smart enough to know which way that audience leans. Knowing that a tough-on-crime approach will sway no one, she has no position but to reach into the bottom of the barrel for “muh feels”.

      There’s really no other way to defend the registry. It’s that clearly unconstitutional. It is both cruel and unusual, and is second punishment for the same offense. It has only survived because (most) sex offenders are super gross and gender no sympathy.

  15. Marci Hamilton is a dead ringer for Frau Farbissina, founder of the militant wing of the Salvation Army.

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