“Sex Offender Laws Have Gone Too Far”

We recently came across this five-part series on sex offender registries, written by three Yale Law School students and published by Slate.com.  It traces the recent history of registries since the passage of the Jacob Wetterling Act in 1994, examines some of the fallacies and flawed stereotypes underlying the expansion of registries in the past 20 years, and spotlights three areas in which the authors argue their growth has been especially unwise:

  • more non-violent “outlier” crimes are covered;
  • states are keeping people on registries for longer periods of time and making removal harder; and
  • more harsh collateral consequences attach to those required to register.

The series links to recent research reports, including from the Council of State Governments and the Center for Sex Offender Management, indicating that registries do little to add to public safety.  However, it concludes that it will take time for evidence-based, research-driven policy recommendations to change long-established practices, as long as public perceptions and political scare tactics dominate the legislative agenda.

Meanwhile, those on registries are subject to humiliating and unsafe restrictions on where they can live and where they can go.  The situation in Miami attracted international attention a few years ago after pictures of dozens of homeless sex offenders living in squalid conditions under the Julia Tuttle Bridge went viral on the internet.  In response, Miami-Dade authorities imposed even stricter controls, shuffling the hapless band of homeless men around the city from street corners to parking lots to abandoned warehouses, and finally to a field beside an active railroad track with no sanitation facilities or other basic necessities, in a fruitless effort to avoid their coming within 2500 ft. of schools or other places where children congregate.  The ACLU has filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court in Miami, challenging the county ordinance on due process and vagueness grounds, arguing that its enforcement leaves the homeless men “in imminent risk of physical harm from attack, exposure or disease.”  A press release accompanying the filing argued that complaint

The squalid conditions make it extremely difficult for former offenders to find and maintain stable employment and regular psychological treatment, which are the only two factors proven to reduce the likelihood of reoffending. Decades of research show that housing restrictions like Miami-Dade’s have no impact on reoffending and are more likely to increase it.

At some point public policy will catch up with research and basic humanity.  But evidently not yet, especially not in Miami.