Over the years, there has been a rather large divide within the grassroots campaign to reform sex offender laws, regarding the registry itself. Some people believe that the sex offender registry should merely be reformed to reflect only those registrants deemed a high risk to society, while others, like myself, believe the registry should not exist in any form. Sometimes the argument can be a rather heated, sometimes to the point that activists have left the movement altogether.
I have told my story many times over the years and I have confessed on numerous occasions that joining the grassroots campaign to end the sex offender registry was not my first choice of careers. When I first got out of prison back in 2003, my only goals were to find my own residence and a job, keep a low profile, and not "rock the boat." In two years since my release, I had achieved what I set out to do, and things were starting to look up. In 2005, all that changed – I was targeted by local politicians who believed the city of Cincinnati was becoming a sex offender Mecca. The city reclassified individuals from out-of-state as sexual predators. With my reclassification team a civil suit to force me out of a residence that was pre-approved by the Sheriff's office. That was when I decided to fight back.
I got my start in 2004 on my now-defunct website called "sex criminals," a site that debated the need for sex offender laws, and even that long ago, the subject was hotly contested. It was barely a year removed from the US Supreme Court decisions of Smith v. Doe and Doe v. Connecticut Department of Public Safety. In both cases, the registry was upheld.
It is a bit ironic that my first year of college began in 1994, the same year the Jacob Wetterling Act created the first national sex offender registry in existence. The Wetterling Act created a private registry for law-enforcement officials and a select number of other individuals to access in the event of a missing child. While the concept of a sex offender registry dates back to the 1930s, the modern era of predator panic coupled with the containment model of justice helped morph and expand the sex offender registry to its current monstrocity.
In 1996, just two years after the Wetterling Act, Megan's Law made the registry public. As the result of one high-profile case, the registry has been expanded. Over the years, this scenario has written repeated time and time again. Whereas the Wetterling Act was limited to those deemed high-risk, such as repeat or extremely violent offenders, the public registry has expanded to include a number of minor or nuisance offenders, such as people who urinate in public, teens who have had consensual relations with one another or have sent naked pictures of themselves to others, and in some cases, people who have not even committed sex crimes. With the passage of the Adam Walsh Act in 2006, legislators ensured that even more people would be ensnared in lifelong registration schemes.
The registry has expanded many times over the years, and often is justified by a number of myths and a few rare but tragic high-profile cases. Currently, Massachusetts and Oregon, two states that if only previously listed high-level offenders on their public registries, are considering expanding the public registry. This news story from Massachusetts is typical of the mentality to ever expand the registry:
The situation in Massachusetts serves as a reminder that it only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch. If we merely reform the registry rather than repeal it, then we're only one high profile case away from a return to the full-scale registry. In recent memory, we have witnessed the same pattern with other laws, such as gun control. After a rash of school shootings such as Littleton or Columbine in the 1990s, a number of restrictions severely limiting gun rights were passed. As the years passed, these laws fell out of favor, but in the wake of more recent shootings such as Sandy Hook and the "Batman movie" shooting in Colorado, there is a renewed push for further restrictions.
In Oregon, the public registry is being expanded while at the same time providing an opportunity for high-risk offenders to come off the registry sooner. On the surface, it sounds like a feasible option:
"It's a bill that would add about 400 sex offenders to the 800 currently listed on Oregon's public website. That's out of the 18,000 sex offenders required to register with the state...The crimes include first-degree rape, sodomy, sex abuse, sexual penetration, child pornography, encouraging child sex abuse, compelling prostitution and kidnapping. If House Bill 2549 passes, the offenders convicted of those crimes can ask to be taken off the state's registry within as few as five years after they're done with probation or parole."
Personally, I feel as if the Oregon bill should pass without expanding the registry whatsoever. Some people may ask, "What is a mere 400 people if it benefits all registrants in the long run?" If you are one of the 400 people that the law potentially impacts, then you already know the answer. Social ostracism, denial of housing and employment, and vigilante violence are all directly linked to public disclosure on a sex offender registry.
Since sex offender registries are expanded by rare high-profile tragic cases, the what is to stop us from contracting the registry as a result of high profile vigilante crimes, such as the double murder in Port Angeles, Washington of two guys on the sex offender registry? Where is "Gary's Law?"
It is often said a picture is worth 1000 words. Perhaps the following better illustrates my point better than any of my words could. Allowing the sex offender registry to exist has led to the monster it has become today.allowing the sex offender registry has led to this:
|Bradford County, FL|
|Julia Tuttle Causeway sex offender camp: Miami, FL 2009|
|Port Angeles, WA|
A few activists have tried justifying simple reform over repeal by looking at the few who re-offend. It is an established fact that sex offenders have an extremely low rate of re-offense. One thing the reformists tend to forget it is we are a long way from perfecting the art of determining who is a high risk and who is not. Even the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art actuarial risk assessment tests can predict who is going to re-offend about as accurately as a coin flip. In Massachusetts, the push to expand the public registry is the result of a Tier 1/ Low Risk registrant committing a series of crimes. Ultimately, trying to argue which registrants deserve to be on a public list is about like asking the individuals who rely on the "if it saves just one child" mantra which child deserves to be saved.
Since 2005, I have been a living example of how an individual can be wrongfully classified. The basis for bumping my tier level up from 1 to 3 was on the basis of coming from a state with lifetime reporting requirements for all registrants, whereas Ohio had a three-tiered risk assessment. In 2008, risk assessment tests were abolished in favor of the Adam Walsh Act, which places people in one of three tiers based upon the offense alone. As a result, the number of individuals on the highest here in Ohio more than doubled.
Because sex offenders are not a homogeneous group, there is no simple way to weed out the chaff from the wheat. There are fixated offenders, and there are situational offenders. There are people who have committed rape or sexual abuse; there are people who have engaged in conduct with a willing but underage participant; there have been people who have flashed others; there have been people caught urinating in a secluded the public area; others who had consensual adult relations in secluded but public areas; there have been teens who have taken pictures of themselves; there have been teens who have had consensual relations with each other; there are individuals placed on the public registry for crimes that were not of a sexual nature. Only a very small portion are clinically diagnosed with pedophilia, and not everybody who is a pedophile commits sexual offenses.
Some people feel we should merely fight to reform rather than repeal because they do not believe the registry will never disappear. I do not believe that argument. The main reason that these laws have passed in the manner they have was mainly because nobody was speaking up against them. In the past few years, the movement to reform sex offender laws has indeed succeeded in raising awareness and slowing down the momentum, and in some cases stopping, the myriad of tough on crime sex offender laws. We have encouraged a growing number of individuals to take a second look at these laws and understand the harm they are causing.
I have lived under the public registry for a decade. I have experienced firsthand the effects of social ostracism, denial of housing and employment, and vigilante violence in my own life. Because I have this label, everything I do is considered suspect. The masses say is part of the punishment, the legislators claim it is not punishment. It certainly feels like punishment. The registry is unconstitutional, unethical, and causes social harm. Allowing it to exist is merely cutting one head from a hydra. Anything less than repealing the registry is not acceptable.