Lansing Watchdog: Research Not Rhetoric Should Lead Sex Offender Laws

POST BY Shelli Weisberg Legislative Director
July 14, 2016

ACLU at the Michigan Capitol – The Week of July 11, 2016

A bill has been introduced in the Michigan Senate, SB 1027 sponsored by Senator Curtis Hertel, Jr., D–East Lansing, that is yet another ill-conceived policy recommendation catering to reactionary and uninformed fears about Michigan's sex offender registry.

We should expect our elected officials to offer policy solutions based on research, data, and proven strategies to achieve the best possible outcomes. There exists a mountain of recent research on the effectiveness (and ineffectiveness) of sex offender registries as well as volumes of studies on those we brand as sex offenders—25% of whom were minors when they were convicted of one of the broad, often-vague categories of Michigan's "sex crimes".

Legislation like SB 1027 reflects how Michigan's sex offender registry has grown to become meaningless to public safety while at the same time doing nothing to actually prevent victimization or to support the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.

SB 1027 would make it illegal for a registered sex offender to work or volunteer in an organization that includes anyone under the age of 18 or serves victims of sexual assault. The bill completely ignores the individual's rehabilitation status, risk to re-offend, and relationship to the organization.

For instance, many listed offenders, because they are unable to find employment, own a small business in which they may employ their own children. This proposed legislation would criminalize that endeavor.

This bill is one of many that continue to use the sex offender registry as a dumping ground for pointless, and even dangerous, ideas proffered by lawmakers trying to appear "tough on crime" while introducing policies that actually do nothing to improve public safety.

Instead of being "smart on crime" this proposed legislation will further exclude an entire class of people from meaningful participation in society, based not on their risk of dangerous nor to public safety, but solely because they are included on a registry built on fear instead of reason and analysis; a registry that has had little effect on reducing sex crimes and that virtually eliminates one's opportunity to rehabilitate and live as a contributing member of society.

The Michigan sex offender registry is the fourth largest in the country and the scope and breadth of its consequences have sprawled dramatically over the last two decades. With more than 40,000 listed offenders and 2,000 new listings every year, Michigan's sex offender registry affects a growing number of people regardless of their offense, their rehabilitation status, and their risk of re-offense.

Michigan moved from having basic registration laws in the 1990's to permissive community notification and finally to full public internet access in the early 2000's. Over the past decade, registration requirements have increased. The registry has gone from listing just an offender’s home address to now also requiring that person’s work address, vehicle information, email, social media identifiers, and regularly used phone numbers used.

At the same time, lawmakers have increased restrictions to the universe of listed sex offenders as a whole, including prohibitions on employment in certain industries (nursing homes and schools) and more stringent restrictions on where a listed offender can legally live, work and simply be. At each of these stages, the state applied the registration and notification laws retroactively.

Michigan's registry initially included juveniles as young as 9 years old. Due to changes in 2011 meant to comply with the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), most – but not all – of our juvenile offenders are on a private registry available only to law enforcement. It is important to note that even on a non-public registry, juvenile registrants face the same restrictions as their adult counterparts.

But the fact remains that numerous studies over the years demonstrate that sex offender registries do not increase public safety. We know that re-offense rates vary among different types of sex offenders and are related to specific characteristics of the offender and the offense. But the evidence consistently shows that recidivism rates for listed sex offenders are among the lowest for all criminal offenses—averaging 3.3 percent for a sex crime.

Recidivism rates for those convicted on sex-related crimes do not change based on a duty to register. However, recidivism rates for registered offenders for non-sex crimes is higher, mostly because registrants fail to navigate the complex thicket of legal restrictions continuously springing up around them.

Over the years, little justification has been offered for the growing amount of harsh collateral consequences that many individuals suffer, not because they present any real social danger but merely because they are named on the registry. Residency restrictions imposed in Michigan are severe enough to exclude registrants from most available housing in their community, in some cases even preventing them from living with their families.

After the 2011 SORNA update, most of Michigan's registrants went from being on the registry for 25 years to lifetime registration. More than 75% of registrants are now on for life.

This begs the question: What made them suddenly more dangerous such that they needed to be monitored for life? Most are on the registry for life, and we offer no due process mechanism for removal despite all the history and piles of studies that prove that the risk of re-offense is extremely low.

Concerns about public safety cannot justify policies, such as the broad restriction in SB 1027, that impose serious burdens on entire categories of people--particularly when more accurate assessment criteria can be established. A critical component is use of “risk-assessment tools” that allow us to more reliably measure the risk to reoffend.

The ACLU of Michigan is committed to working in this legislature and in the courts to roll back increasingly draconian sex offender laws that, in effect, harm and stigmatize whole swaths of resident while doing almost nothing to actually make Michigan communities safer.

The Michigan sex offender registry is the fourth largest in the country and the scope and breadth of its consequences have sprawled dramatically over the last two decades.

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