Are Sex Offender Registries Cruel and Unusual Punishment? December 29, 2015
By Phil Locke, Science and Technology Advisor,
Innocence Project and Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic Ohio
Are there people who commit heinous sex crimes? Of course, and there are also people who commit heinous murders; and while a murderer is a murderer is a murderer, I submit that the percentage of sex offenders who are truly profound, violent, serial offenders is a tiny fraction of the total number of casual, one-time, often non-violent, and even unknowing people who commit a sexual transgression. However, the laws get written and enforced assuming that any sex offender is a wild-eyed, crazed, unstoppable sex fiend. It’s the way it is. The moral core of our society instills the belief that anything having to do with sex (outside the marital bedroom, in bed, at night, under the covers, with the lights out) is anathema; and combine this with the innate human predilection for revenge, and you wind up with our sex offender laws. Make no mistake – the people who are truly dangerous, violent, serial offenders need to be dealt with appropriately, and they need help. But why does some guy whose date lied to him about her age have to wind up on the sex offender registry for life, even after doing prison time? And the same applies when a vindictive spouse or ex-spouse gets the kids to lie about being molested; or when an angry ex-girlfriend makes a false claim of rape.
We’ve posted previously about the quagmire into which sex offenders, particularly those who are wrongfully convicted, are thrown by the justice system. The SOR’s have an incredibly punitive and damaging effect not just on the person on the registry, but also on their families. Many on the registry are not even allowed to be with their own children. Please see:
As for being “effective” — sex offender registries are nothing more than public shaming, that in many (most) cases is inflicted for a lifetime. They’re no different than the “scarlet letter” of the 1600’s Puritan times. And what is absolutely mind-blowing is that the SOR’s have been proven not to work, and they cost the taxpayers gobs of money (see reference ‘a’ above). But now that they’ve become institutionalized in the justice system, they’re a political football. Now we have lots of people whose livelihoods derive from the SOR’s, and an entire industry has built up around the maintenance and support of SOR’s (just like the prison system). To advocate sensible, logical approaches to the problem has become political suicide for the politicians and legislators.
And it’s incredibly easy to be wrongfully convicted of a sex crime. All it takes is a false or mistaken accusation, and you are placed in the position of having to prove your innocence.
The very existence of SOR’s begs the question: why don’t we have murderer’s registries, or assault & battery registries, or manslaughter registries, or robbery registries, or kidnapping registries, or securities fraud registries?
So are sex offender registries cruel and unusual punishment? Please see the probing and cogent article by Judith Levine here. The SOR’s immediately became ironically counterproductive, as evidenced by this quote from the article:
“Megan’s Laws were supposed to protect children. But two decades of research show they don’t improve anyone’s safety, least of all children’s. In fact, it may be minors themselves who are harmed most by the laws put in place to safeguard them.”
Such is the stupidity of the legislative and law enforcement process we endure today. The “justice system” will sanctimoniously declare, “The SOR’s are in the best interest of public health and safety.” But they’re blindly ignoring a data-driven understanding of what they actually accomplish and the untold harm that they cause.