An Unfair Stigma

January 8, 2010 (Michigan): An Unfair Stigma – For convicted sex offenders who have sought help, the state’s public Sex Offender Registry can make it hard to leave the past behind.

After being listed on the Michigan Sex Offender Registry for eight years, William believes he’s earned a chance to resume a normal life.
Convicted of repeatedly exposing himself in public, a misdemeanor offense, he served jail time and completed a five-year probation term. William continued getting the counseling he thought he needed and committed no additional offenses. To improve his employment chances, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in computer science. “I made a mistake, made some poor choices,” the Berrien County man said. “I own what I did, and I believe I’ve fixed it.”

But under state law, the married, 39-year-old Army veteran cannot have his name stricken from the police and public sex offender registries. He must remain listed until 2027. With many employers unwilling to hire a person on the registry, the lengthy term could relegate him to a life with no job or being underemployed.

Being on the registry also limits where he can live and shuts him out of his son’s school activities. Although his crime had nothing to do with children, he’s subjected to the same restrictions as a convicted pedophile.

“It’s miserable,” William said. “I’ve had people leave church because I’m there.”

He was on the management track and had been named employee of the month at his last job. A co-worker discovered that he was a listed sex offender, threatened to blow the whistle, and they were both fired, he said. That was five years ago.

At a recent job interview with a large company, William was confident he’d landed the position. Told that a routine background check was required, he admitted to being listed on the registry. William is waiting to hear from the company but doesn’t hold out hope.
“I can’t get hired,” he said. “If somebody would give me a chance.”

Promoting change

Critics of the state Public Sex Offender Registry charge that the law, while serving its intended purpose of telling where potentially dangerous predators live, can make it impossible for people who are not a threat to find jobs and put the past behind.

The state’s one-size-fits-all approach requires anyone convicted of a “listed offense” to be on the register for 25 years, or life in some cases. Listed offenses range from the most violent felony sexual assaults on adults or children down to indecent exposure, soliciting for prostitution or pandering. Three convictions of any combination of being a disorderly person or indecent exposure results in placement on the registry for 25 years. Convictions for “Romeo and Juliet” offenses, where one of the partners in a sexual relationship is younger than 16, also requires listing.

Across the country, organizations are working for reform, attempting to get states to recognize the difference between predators and those unlikely to re-offend. Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said the consequences of public listing on a registry are often not proportionate to the crime and seriousness of the offense.
There is little evidence that registries protect public safety, she said, and the effects on those listed are harsh and punitive, especially when they are juveniles.

“It’s so because most sex assaults, especially on children, are done by friends or family members,” she said. “We argue that if you want to protect children from being sexually assaulted, we need to do more as to what is bad touching and to address the treatment needs of people who have been victims.”

According to a U.S. Department of Justice study, 34 percent of youth victims, those 0-17, were sexually assaulted by a family member and 59 percent were assaulted by acquaintances (that’s 93%) , leaving 7 percent in the study who were the victims of strangers.

State registries were originally set up to help law enforcement keep track of potentially dangerous and violent sex offenders. They were later expanded to provide information to the public, now by Web sites. “It’s the widespread use over the Internet that has negative effects, Velazquez said. “For law enforcement keeping tabs, it makes sense. But for people trying to live successfully in society, it makes sense for them to have jobs and decent living conditions.”

Since registries were formed in the 1990s, the laws that govern them have been amended in many states. Zones have been set up around schools and in other areas to keep convicted sex offenders out. Restrictions make some cities, among them Miami and San Francisco, nearly uninhabitable for sex offenders. “We’re basically pushing these people out to where there aren’t any services,” Velazquez said. “The idea is that we can banish them.” But if the criminal justice system determines that a person need not be in jail, she said, “we shouldn’t make it impossible for them to live in the community.”

Gloria Gillespie, a therapist who counsels sex offenders and victims of sex crimes, said the registration law stands in the way of people like William who are trying to move ahead. “It’s not set up to help sex offenders,” she said. “It’s set up to help the rest of us.”

Gillespie, who has counseled William for years, said there is “no registry for murderers” or home invaders who may pose a greater risk than a sex offender.

She believes the registration law should be changed to allow shorter listing periods, based on behavior and other factors. The juvenile registry should exist only for police use, said Gillespie, a long-serving Berrien County commissioner.

Juvenile impact

For juveniles, the effects of being publicly listed can be particularly devastating, Gillespie said. Many youths get in trouble for what amounts to sexual experimentation, she said, and listing on the registry interferes with rehabilitation while doing little to safeguard the public.

The mother of a 17-year-old Berrien County youth, convicted of molesting girls he was supervising years ago, is concerned what public registration will mean for her son when he turns 18. The offenses were committed when the youth was 12 and 14. He successfully completed probation as required by the sentencing judge, finishing a 200-hour public service requirement in 4-6 months, and has been on the nonpublic police registry since. He excels in school, where he plays several sports. Gillespie said the youth’s offenses, while serious and wrong, were exploratory in nature. He is not a predator, is unlikely to commit a new crime, but must stay on the register until he is in his 40s, she said. “Juvenile murderers get off at 21 and they’re not on any list,” she said. “What’s the purpose of this?”

The youth’s mother said a lengthy registration requirement may sometimes be necessary, but is unreasonable in her son’s case.
“I think the judges with the help of the counselors and probation officers who know these kids should be allowed to make the decision on how long they should be on the registry,” the woman said. “I know how remorseful he is,” she said. “It’s going to be a challenge for him.”

St. Joseph lawyer Brian Berger, who represented the youth in court, said justice would be better served in such cases if judges had discretion in deciding when people could be taken off the registry. “It’s a huge problem that people who deserve a second chance don’t get it,” Berger said. “When you say ‘sex offense’ it’s such a broad, broad range.”

Offenders who commit violent sexual offenses should be on the registry for a long time, Berger said. “But a guy in a bar who touches a woman and gets (convicted of ) fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct? He’s a registered sex offender,” Berger said.

Legislators take notice

Several bills pending in the state Legislature would amend the registry law, toughening it with measures that would expand the listed offenses to include attempted solicitation of minors over the Internet, and make it a felony for people listed for certain offenses from accessing social networking Web sites. Another bill would expand the 1,000-foot school safety zones to include school bus stops.

A 2006 federal law, the Adam Walsh Protection Safety Act, will create even more reporting requirements and conditions. States were required to adopt the law this year or risk losing a portion of certain grants. No states complied and Congress extended the deadline to 2010. The law requires states to participate in a national registry. It sets up registration requirements for people as young as 14, sometimes for life. It would also create a three-tired system for sex offenders, requiring registration for 15 years, 25 years or life, depending on offense.

State Rep. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, said a subcommittee is reviewing Sex Offender Registry problems. “There are some very compelling cases that … don’t rise to the threshold of a predator and shouldn’t be on the register,” she said. “Unfortunately, they get lumped in with the predators.”

The subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, is receiving testimony, Schuitmaker said. In some cases, people learn after they plead guilty to certain crimes that they must register. The law does not provide for review by a judge.

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