by Rudy Serra
This month, the British journal The Economist (Vol. 392, Number 8643 “America’s Unjust Sex Laws”) warned that “America’s ever stricter approach to sex offenders is doing more harm than good.” The same is true in Michigan.
No one supports sexual violence or the exploitation of the vulnerable. Most sex offender registration laws are enacted during the passionate hysteria that follows a high-profile rape or murder. It is important to think carefully about the effectiveness of such laws, as well as their unintended consequences.
We need to think about whether sex offender registration really protects children or other vulnerable people. There is evidence that they are superficial “feel good” devices that allow politicians to pander to our outrage, but have no real, long-term effectiveness. Easy, superficial answers often do more harm than objective, scientifically verified responses.
Murderers, kidnappers, armed robbers, vandals and arsonists are not required to register. If repeat-offenders and violent rapists were the only people on the sex offender list, there would be little reason for concern. When the lists expand to ensnare people who pose no danger, committed no sexual offense and are not likely to commit any other crime, they need to be re-considered. When the same laws have a devastating, disparate impact on an unpopular minority, like LGBT people, the need for reconsideration is urgent.
The Economist warned that under “the Adam Walsh Act of 2006, another law named after a murdered child, all states will soon be obligated to make their sex offender registries public.” They noted that there were more than 647,000 registered sex offenders in America as of December 2008. In Michigan, more than 43,964 people were registered sex offenders by 2009. Over 2,000 of these Michigan registrants were juveniles.
According to The Economist, “America registers more than four times as many people as Britain, which is unusually harsh on sex offenders. American sex offender registries continue to grow because registration is for life.”
Studies show that over 65 percent of the registered offenders in one state (Georgia) “posed little threat” to anyone. A study that included Canada, the U.S. and Britain found that more than 75 percent of registered sex offenders had not repeated any offense after 15 years. These statistics are inconsistent with the language in Michigan’s law that claims that all sex offenders pose a “potential serious menace.”
Despite the political hysteria that promotes the simplistic “get tough” approach, law enforcement officials complain that “if there are thousands of offenders on a registry, it is harder to keep track of the most dangerous ones” (The Economist, p. 22). The Georgia Sheriff’s Association complained about registration of “a man who was convicted of statutory rape two decades ago for having consensual sex with his high school sweetheart, to whom he is now married.”
Similarly, this year a Michigan man applied for a pardon from his conviction for criminal sexual conduct with a woman to whom he has now been married for many years. In another case, a member of religious community had voluntary sex with a girl over 19 not knowing that she had a developmental disability. The courts found she was unable to give consent, and the man now has to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
In another Michigan case, a 12-year-old boy was sneaking out at night to have sex with another 12-year-old boy. One admitted he was gay while the other denied it. As a result, the gay child was pressured to plead no contest to criminal sexual conduct after being assured that, since he was a juvenile, there would be no adult criminal record. The other boy was not charged.
Years later, after the gay child was an adult, the law was changed. Now he has to register as a sex offender. As a result, he has lost several jobs and now experiences vandalism and harassment from neighbors.
Michigan’s “Sex Offender Registration Act” (MCL 28.721) dictates that a person must register for life if they have one conviction for criminal sexual conduct or contact (MCL 750.520b, c, d or g). This is true even if the alleged contact is touching the clothing of the victim (a misdemeanor).
This law, of course, is intended to regulate involuntary sex, so many people support registration. It is important to know, however, that you are also required to register for life if, during your lifetime, you have three convictions under the “disorderly person” law.
This means that in Michigan you face lifelong sex offender registration for neglecting to support your family (MCL 750.167(1)(a), for being a “window peeper” (MCL 750.167(1)(c), or for being a “vagrant” (MCL 750.167(1)(g)).
Even though vagrancy and non-support have nothing to do with sex, Michigan law requires lifelong sex offender registration. Astoundingly, begging in a public place (MCL 750.167(1)(h)) also warrants life-long sex offender registration.
No reasonable person could conclude that such a law is fair. Such a law is not even reasonable. It is a product of anti-sex hysteria.
Supporters argue that since three convictions are needed under this section there is some protection. Many LGBT people know, however, that you need not do anything illegal to be charged with a crime. Undercover cops still pretend to be gay men cruising for sex in Michigan and innocent people still get charged with solicitation, indecent exposure and lewdness. They face a lifelong stigma for seeking unpaid, private, voluntary sex with another apparently interested adult.
Amazingly, under Michigan law, lawyers face lifelong sex offender registration if they have three convictions for loitering in “a police station, police headquarters building, county jail, hospital, court building or other public building or place for the purpose of soliciting employment of legal services.” This violation clearly has no connection to sex, nor does it include violence.
Under Michigan law, if you get three convictions for “jostling or roughly crowding people unnecessarily in a public place” you can spend the rest of your life as registered sex offender (MCL 750.167(1)(l) and MCL 28.721).
The same law requires lifelong registration for one conviction under our sodomy law (MCL 750.158 – which is still enforced even after Lawrence v Texas). Voluntary, unpaid, anal sex in Michigan can get you 15 years in prison and lifelong sex offender registration. Likewise, oral sex in public or in private, or even indecent exposure (MCL 750.335a) can result in lifelong sex offender registration.
Most sex offenders are members of the family of the victim and most are heterosexual. Anti-gay politicians exploit stereotypes of LGBT people being a threat to the children in order to win votes. By doing so, they victimize people who are not a threat. This makes the vulnerable even more susceptible to victimization.
Sex offender registration laws were meant to protect the public from violent, repeat offenders. As a result of “get tough on crime” political pandering, they have become counter-productive.