Sex Offenders and Civil Rights

July 4, 2010

Defending Sex Crimes: Sex Offenders and Civil Rights

A law student I admire sent me a note not long ago asking, in effect, whether those calling for the reform of sex offender legislation were opposed to punishment for those engaged in real acts of sexual misconduct. The hypothetical case she used as an example was that of a 50-year-old man who abused a six-year-old girl. Such conduct, of course, calls for a response by the law; child abuse is wrong. No one is asking that it be legalized.

But the current regime of sex offender legislation does far more than target such offenses. It encompasses an ever-widening course of conduct, and it imposes ever-more draconian consequences. Reform efforts are focused on a sense of proportion between offense and consequence. These efforts also ask that lawmakers and the courts give ample consideration to whether some offenses ought to carry criminal consequences at all.

I spoke a week ago at a conference on the reform of sex offender legislation and was moved almost to tears by what I saw: Adults living almost in fear of government and others. Attendees at the conference wore name badges that simply gave their first name and their state of origin. When I questioned why this was so, one participant told me they were afraid of retaliation by government actors. That struck me as almost paranoid, but the paranoia has its source in laws at once so savage and harsh that I understand the fear. It is, after all, a criminal offense is 13 states to urinate in public: doing so will land you a place on the sex offender registry, and the communal scorn that comes of this. No wonder people are afraid.

While at the conference, one man asked whether the treatment of sex offenders was a civil rights issue. Had the time not come for concerted legal efforts to challenge laws that are overbroad in application and often cruel and unusual in application.

I am not sure how much relief the courts are prepared to offer. My sense is that reform of these laws is primarily a legislative effort, and that nothing will be as successful in promoting change as grassroots efforts by those harmed by these laws. Judges, for example, are afraid, often reluctant to act when they must face re-election or retention hearings. Even in the federal courts, where judges have lifetime appointments, political pressure can be keen: Public hysteria is focused now on United States District Court Judge Robert N. Chatigny, a nominee to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit: Muckrakers claim the judge is soft on sex offenders and therefore unworthy of confirmation. This is scary stuff. Who wants to stand next to a sex offender?

But lawyers can play a role. We can litigate cases or controversies arising under state and federal constitutions. Ohio’s Jeff Gamso just won a spectacular victory under the Ohio constitution, persuading the state’s Supreme Court that it’s sex offender classification system involved a violation of the state’s separation of powers clause. Other states have similar doctrines and practices. Lawyers need a clearing house to share this information.

What’s needed are lawyers willing to give of their time to help push reform. Needed even more is an organization to provide administrative support for the lawyers.

Someone asked a question from the floor of the Washington conference last week about what it would take to form a committee of lawyers willing to support the reform. Here’s the answer: Your question has prompted one lawyer, me, to declare a willingness to serve. I’ll be reaching out to other lawyers with an aim of finding folks in each of the 50 states. But now I have a question: When we’ve lined up all these lawyers, we’ll need help moving paper and gathering information. Where will we find that support?

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