been 10 years since Shaun Webb, a married father and caretaker at an Oakland
County Catholic church, was convicted of groping a teenage girl over her
sweater, a claim Webb vehemently denies.
then-37 with a clean criminal record, was convicted of misdemeanor sexual
assault and sent to jail for seven months.
misdemeanor, state law demanded Webb be listed on the same public sex offender
registry as hard-core rapists, pedophiles and other felons. It has meant a
decade of poverty, unemployment, harassment and depression for him. Under
current state law, he'll be on the list until 2031.
destroyed my life," Webb said from his rural home in ArenacCounty,
where he now lives alone with his dog, Cody.
one of 43,000 convicted sex offenders in Michigan,
most of which appear on the state online sex offender registry managed by the
State Police. Each state has a digital registry that can be searched on the
Internet with a total of about 800,000 names. The registries are widely
monitored by parents, potential employers and cautious neighbors.
sure, registries in Michigan
and across the nation help track violent sexual offenders and pedophiles who
prey on children, and they're also politically popular and get lots of traffic
But Michigan's law — and
some others across the nation — have come under fire lately as overly broad,
vague and potentially unconstitutional. For example, Michigan has the fourth-highest per capita
number of people on its registry and is one of only 13 states that counts
public urination as a sex crime.
also suggests registries do little to protect communities and often create
ongoing misery for some who served their sentences and are unlikely to
can't find anyone willing to hire him. In his old neighborhood, he was harassed
by other residents who once put up flyers about him. A woman in Florida he has never
met, a self-proclaimed vigilante, tracks his every move online, calling him
names and taunting him as a child rapist.
stress of it all destroyed his marriage, he and his wife say.
early advocates have changed their minds about registries, including Patty
Wetterling, the mother of Jacob Wetterling, who went missing when he was 11 and
was never found. Police suspect Jacob was abducted by a convicted pedophile who
was living nearby unbeknownst to neighbors. No one was charged.
time, Wetterling lobbied passionately for a federal law authorizing registries
and was at the White House in 1994 when President Bill Clinton signed
legislation into law.
now advocates revisiting the laws, saying some juveniles and others who made
mistakes are unnecessarily tarred for decades or life. "Should they never
be given a chance to turn their lives around?" she said in a published
2013 interview. "Instead, we let our anger drive us."
legislators and law enforcement officials say registries are useful because
they help keep track of potentially dangerous people. The supporters also
dismiss the research, saying it's impossible to determine who might re-offend.
caution against narrowing the definition in Michigan's law of who should be listed and
are against adopting a new recommendation by some that defendants should be
judged case by case by who is most likely to re-offend.
problem I have is should we go back and say only pedophiles have to
register?" said state Sen. Rick Jones, a former sheriff who helped draft
some of Michigan's
sex offender registry laws. "Do we want violent sex offenders on the
school grounds? Do we want public masturbators on the school grounds? I'm not
prepared to change the way the list operates."
parents say the registries makes them feel safer.
Petty, a legal secretary, has been logging on regularly over the years as she
raised her two sons in CommerceTownship.
they were going over to a friend's house to visit, I would look to see who
lived nearby, if there was a high concentration," she said. "Not that
there was anything I could do, but it helps to know."
are now 18 and 25, and she monitors the site less frequently, using it to see
who may have moved close by, she said.
want to know who is living in my neighborhood."
offender registry laws were first passed in the 1990s following a string of
horrific child murders. The registries were originally accessible only by
police, allowing them to track the most dangerous offenders.
lawmakers in Michigan
and other states expanded the laws over the years — they are now public record
and include teenagers who had consensual sex, people arrested for public
urination, people who had convictions expunged at the request of their victims,
and people like Webb who have no felony convictions.
this month, a Florida
couple was convicted of lewd behavior after having consensual sex on a public
beach. They will have to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.
In Michigan, most of those
convicted of sex offenses are listed online and show up with just a few key
strokes on a website managed by the Michigan State Police.
face, address, conviction, physical description, birth date and job location
pop up if you plug in his name or the ZIP code where he lives. It does not give
the circumstances of his arrest. The state's site gets about 227,000 hits a
sex offenders don't generate much public sympathy, but research in the last two
decades shows they might not be very effective. And higher courts recently
called registries harsh and unconstitutional, including a ruling last month
that says parts of Michigan's
law are vague and unconstitutional, making it impossible in some instances for
offenders to know whether they are following the law.
there is also a question of fundamental fairness when, for example, a
19-year-old is convicted of having sex with his underage girlfriend or somebody
convicted of public urination is grouped on the same list as a serial rapist.
the court rulings and the research, it's doubtful public sex offender
registries are going away, although it seems apparent Michigan and other states might be pushed
into making some changes.
A marriage destroyed
question, though, is whether Michigan's
expansive definition of who should be on the sex offender registry is fair to
people like Webb. After losing his job at the church and serving his time, he
found himself unable to resume a productive life.
don't bother people. I keep to myself. I can't get a job," he said,
struggling to keep his composure during a recent interview. "I'm just
trying to live my life as best I can."
up to ArenacCounty
from OaklandCounty a few years ago and has been
writing thrillers and true crime books he self-publishes and sells at book
fairs and on Amazon.
pay the bills.
by on food stamps and help from family members who pay his rent. He has
sometimes considered suicide. He takes antidepressants. Under Michigan law, the now-47-year-old Webb has
to stay on the registry until 2031. He has committed no new crimes.
then-15-year-old girl who made the claims against Webb was a family member of a
cleaning crew that worked at the church and school. Webb had reported earlier
he thought the crew had been stealing cleaning and school supplies.
the girl claimed Webb had been molesting her in his office. He was charged with
three counts and convicted of one.
and her family are believed to have moved away. The Free Press was unable to
locate her for this report.
ex-wife, Nancy, a teacher at the church school, said she believes he was
wrongly accused — and that his conviction and registration as an offender
destroyed their marriage.
never believed the accusations and was amazed that such totally unsupported
claims would even be considered," she said in an e-mail to the Free Press.
"These people I knew and spoke to many times. I went through the trial
confused and frightened but confident that justice would prevail. I was shocked
by the conduct of the judge and the prosecutor.
not truth, was their primary motivation."
by him but, she said, "Shaun returned from jail a changed person. He
couldn't work due to his criminal record, even though it's listed as a
misdemeanor, and his sex offender status. He sank into depression, anxiety and
alcohol. Financially drained and emotionally spent, it destroyed our hope and
Most do not re-offend
there are about 800,000 people registered as sex offenders across the 50
Michigan is particularly aggressive, ranking fourth in the nation
with the number of offenders on the registry, following only California,
Texas and Florida. It also ranks fourth per capita,
with 417 registrants per 100,000 citizens. It is one of only 13 states that count
public urination as a sex crime, although two convictions are required before
And Michigan continues to
require registration for consensual sex among teenagers if the age difference
is greater than four years.
a U.S District Court judge in Detroit found Michigan's sex offender law
unconstitutional on several fronts, noting it is so vague — including a
provision that offenders can't live, work or "loiter" within a
thousand feet of a school — that it is almost impossible to comply.
"makes it difficult for a well-intentioned registrant to understand his or
her obligations," Judge Robert Cleland wrote. The sex offender law
"was not enacted as a trap for individuals who have committed sex offenses
in the past and who have already served their sentences. Rather the goal is
public safety and public safety would only be enhanced by the government
ensuring that registrants be aware of their obligations."
in making his ruling, relied in part on the testimony of the state's own expert
on sex offenders, Dr. Janet Fay-Dumaine, a psychologist at the state's Center
for Forensic Psychology who assesses and treats sex offenders. Few, she
is extremely contrary to our cultural assumptions about sex offenders. It's
hard for people to get their head around. Yes, there is a group of sex
offenders that are a high risk of (offending again), but that's a very small
number of sex offenders. Most do not (offend again). And this is a pretty
robust finding in the literature."
Some say get tougher
Michigan legislators are reviewing
Cleland's ruling and considering reforming the laws to make them compliant.
Some, though, think tougher laws are in order. And they dismiss critics who say
the registries cause unnecessary misery to those who have already served their
say if you do the horrible rape, or if you have sex with a child, you deserve
the consequences," said state Sen. Rick Jones, who helped draft some of Michigan's sex offender
questions the research that shows sex offenders are much less likely to
re-offend and that the majority of those on the registry pose no threat.
have 31 years of experience in police work, and as a retired sheriff in EatonCounty
I formed some very strong opinions that the science is still not clear for
pedophiles. I believe it is society's duty to keep pedophiles from children so
that the temptation isn't there. So I say you need to stay a thousand feet from
also discounts the idea that offenders should be treated differently, depending
on their likelihood of re-offending. Minnesota,
for instance, places offenders on its registry based on extensive risk
assessment and psychological testing, not the crimes they committed.
Aukerman, an ACLU attorney who filed the lawsuit challenging the
constitutionality of Michigan's
law, argues that Jones' views are not supported by the facts. She notes that
the lawsuit includes a man forced to register after having consensual sex with
his teenage girlfriend.
are now together and have two children. Yet the man is prohibited from
attending school functions for his children and has a hard time holding down a
many other states focus law enforcement resources on those who are actually a
registry fails to separate those who are a risk from those who aren't. That's
why it is one of the largest registries in the county," Aukerman said.
includes people like our client John Doe, who is on the registry for a
relationship with the woman who is now the mother of his two children and whom
he met at a club restricted to adults," she said.
of us are safer when the police have to monitor people like him who don't need
to be monitored, and then don't have the time to effectively monitor the people
who should be monitored. If we want to be safe, we need to give the police the
tools they need. And that means a registry that uses risk assessments to
determine who needs to be monitored and who doesn't."
national advocacy groups for survivors of sexual assault say overly broad
public registries can hamper, rather than help.
offender registration can be useful for law enforcement agencies in their
tracking of convicted sex offenders," according to the National Alliance
to End Sexual Violence, a Washington-based advocacy group. "However,
over-inclusive publication notification can actually be harmful to public
safety by diluting the ability to identify the most dangerous offenders and by
disrupting the stability of low-risk offenders in ways that increase their risk
federal lawmakers have long grappled with how to keep children safe from
predators, passing laws that, on first review, would appear to give police and
parents tools to monitor the most reviled predators in the community.
Jacob Wetterling was abducted near his home in Minnesota in 1989 by someone police came to
believe was a pedophile living nearby. Jacob has never been found. In 1994,
Congress created the Jacob Wetterling Crime Act, requiring that sex offenders
register with local police and verify their current names and addresses. The
public did not have access to the information.
May 1996, the federal government demanded that those registries be made public,
requiring states to list the names on the Internet. And in 2007, Congress
passed the Adam Walsh Protection Act, expanding the reporting requirements of
sex offenders, mandating that they also report where they work and attend
school and increasing the length of time they stay on the registry. Some
states, like Minnesota,
refused to comply and were denied federal grant money.
those laws may have helped parents rest easier, there is no evidence that they
stopped sexual predators. And in some cases, offenders, ostracized and
stigmatized, unable to rejoin society, turned to new, sometimes nonsexual
crimes, research shows.
Wetterling, Jacob's mother, is currently the board chair director for the NationalCenter for Missing and Exploited
Children, and for many years supported the development of registries in all 50
recent years, she has become a vocal critic of the registries, saying they are
unnecessarily punitive and ineffective.
want a single solution, and that's been sold over the years. ... But we've cast
such a broad net that we're catching a lot of juveniles who did something
stupid, and different types of offenders who just screwed up," Wetterling
said in an interview, published in 2013. "Should they never be given a
chance to turn their lives around? Instead we let our anger drive us."
What the science says
study by the American Journal of Public Health, examining sex offender laws nationwide
and the best way to reduce recidivism, noted: "Research to date indicates
that after 15 years the laws have had little impact on recidivism rates and the
incidence of sexually based crimes."
the study found, "The most significant impact of these laws seems only to
be numerous collateral consequences for communities, registered sex offenders —
including a potential increased risk for recidivism — and their family
Prescott, a law professor at the University
of Michigan and a
nationally recognized expert on sex offender registry laws, agrees. He has done
statistical analysis of the impact the laws have on crime rates.
believe that if a sex offender really wants to commit a crime, these laws are
not going to be particularly effective at stopping him," he said, noting
that there is no evidence that residency restrictions or "school safety
zones" have had any positive impact on the rate of sexual assault on
children, according to studies nationwide.
primary concern driving the passage and expansion of these laws is what people
refer to as 'stranger danger.' People are worried about someone they don't know
attacking them or their kids," he said. "But most offenders are well
known to victims. Plus, there are so many ways for people to wind up on the
registry. These aren't all rapists or child molesters. Urinating in public can
be enough. Many are crimes without violence."
registries have had an important unintended consequence, he said. The public
shaming of sex offenders makes it almost impossible to re-assimilate them into
the community as a productive citizen and, as a result, "we've effectively
reduced the threat of prison.
some of these people, prison is a better option than trying to survive on the
outside … or at least not significantly worse. These laws destroy what's
valuable about someone's freedom: You're a pariah virtually everywhere, you
can't live in most neighborhoods, and nobody wants to date, marry or socialize
with you. You can't find a job because no one will hire a sex offender.
told, these laws take away their reasons for staying on the straight and
narrow, for working hard to become a valuable member of a community. On
balance, these laws may actually make it more attractive for convicted
offenders to return to crime."
Prescott stops short of calling for an end
to all sex offender registries, as some critics have. His research shows that
limited registries open only to law enforcement "do work at reducing
recidivism across all classes of offenders."
research also shows that the mere threat of having to publicly register may
deter some potential offenders from committing their first crime, this effect
is more than offset in states with large registries by higher levels of recidivism
among those who have been convicted.
Politics and people
KG, a MacombCounty
man who asked that his name not be made public because of his wife and
children, has no criminal conviction on the record, but he is on the public
ago, his stepchild accused KG, a mid-level manager working for a car company,
of inappropriate groping. Faced with the possibility of a trial that would
include family members testifying against each other, he took the advice of his
lawyer, and pleaded to a misdemeanor charge of fourth-degree criminal sexual
conduct. He did no jail time and was placed on probation.
thought it was in the best interest of my family," he said. "I didn't
understand the ramifications."
employer found out he was listed as a sex offender and fired him after 20
years. He got new jobs, but the registry caught up with him during background
checks, and he has mostly been unemployed over the last decade. Not long ago,
he testified before the state's judiciary committee on the need for reform.
explained what happened to me," he said. "I'm not a predator, I'm not
months ago, he sought to have his criminal history cleared. The stepchild who
made the allegations wrote the court, asking that his criminal conviction be
expunged. A judge agreed and removed the conviction.
still remains on the sex offender registry. The law doesn't allow even those
who have had their criminal histories cleared to be removed from the list.
see this all the time," said Shannon Smith, a Bloomfield Hills attorney
who has built her practice representing people charged with sex offenses. She
represented KG in having his record cleared.
often the people who come to me are involved in touching that was
misinterpreted, or kids who were involved in something. It's total overkill.
This man is not a risk."
estimates she has represented 200 or so people charged with sex crimes and some
already on the registry. Some were facing new penalties for not following the
complicated reporting requirements, not for committing new offenses.
law reads like dog food," she said. "The decision to place somebody
on the registry should be based on risk assessment and judges should have more
Zoltowski, a licensed psychologist who specializes in sexual disorders, does
risk assessments for courts, helping to determine the likelihood an offender
might re-offend. She evaluated KG and determined that he posed no threat,
submitting her findings to the court.
hear the words sex offender and they immediately think pedophile," said
Zoltowski, who has done more than 600 assessments since 2001. Many were done
while she worked at the Oakland County Court Psychology Clinic. "There are
too many people I've seen who really don't belong on the registry."
also runs a private practice treating sexual problems and says studies
consistently show that many respond well to therapy, particularly juveniles.
"But there is such a stigma attached that a lot of them won't seek help,
or they're worried that they'll be reported to police."
Smith and Zoltowski belong to Michigan's
Coalition for a Useful Registry, a group that meets four times a year to
discuss the laws and lobby legislators for reform. The group includes attorneys,
probation officers, a retired judge, and family members of those on the
really very political," said Smith. "And the public has such a
misconception of who these people are."
law enforcement though, believe that it is impossible to predict who will
re-offend and that it's better to monitor too much rather than not enough.
know from experience that a Peeping Tom can escalate to violent crime,"
said Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, who drafted Michigan's first sex offender laws in the
1990s, as a state senator.
regarding critics who say the laws are unnecessarily punitive and punish people
who have already served their time, he said, "I don't care. In my mind,
some of these people should not have been released to begin with."