article

03.20.10

Have Sex-Offender Laws Gone Too Far?

Georgia’s high court put a guy who briefly detained—but never touched—a 17-year-old girl on a sex-offender registry. Conor Friedersdorf on why this stigma should be reserved for monsters.

A Georgia man must register as a sex offender despite never having committed a sexual offense, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled this week. Jake Rainer, a small-time robber, is due to appear on a state registry alongside serial child rapists. He is prohibited from residing near churches, parks, or schools, and on moving, he’ll always stoke anxiety among his neighbors.

His is one case among many that shows the absurdity of sex-offender registries kept in so many states, and even teenagers caught "sexting" are finding themselves ensared in the law. I’d prefer that first-degree rapists, child molesters, sex traffickers, and child pornographers be imprisoned for life. If they must be released, monitoring is a reasonable condition. But folks who aren’t sexual predators shouldn’t bear the same stigma. It is neither just nor prudent: Sex-offender registries best protect us when their scarlet letters are reserved for folks who are actually horrors.

Is it prudent to lavish disproportionate attention on this 28-year-old man, especially given the scarce resources available to monitor truly dangerous ex-convicts?

Rainer is more like a juvenile delinquent from a teen drama on the WB. As an 18-year-old, he and three conspirators arranged to purchase marijuana from a 17-year-old girl. “Instead of making a deal,” The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports, “they drove her to a cul-de-sac, took the pot and abandoned her.” Odious behavior, but it hardly warrants a lifetime branded as a sex offender. Substantial time behind bars seems harsh enough.

Attorneys for the defense argued that putting their client on a sex-offender list constitutes cruel and unusual punishment—after all, the stigma alone has destroyed many lives. The majority opinion found otherwise. “Because the registration requirements themselves do not constitute punishment,” it states, “it is of no consequence whether or not one has committed an offense that is ‘sexual’ in nature”—this despite the fact that every single American would consider it “punishment” if he or she were put on a sex-offender list, and almost all presume that folks on the lists are convicted sexual deviants.

Rainer served five years in prison, and successfully completed another five years on probation. A decade later, is it prudent to lavish disproportionate attention on this 28-year-old man, especially given the scarce resources available to monitor truly dangerous ex-convicts?

Carefully drawn registries are better suited to reducing the recidivism rate among predators—let the police and the citizenry focus its vigilance. Instead sex offender lists are adding not only low-level drug criminals, but also teens who text naked pictures of themselves to one another, and other high schoolers whose mistake is sex with a slightly younger classmate.

In Georgia, all is not lost. The absurdity of current law is plain even to members of the state legislature. Decent reform legislation passed its lower chamber 165 to 1. Should the bill pass into law, so-called sex offenders could petition to be removed from the state’s registry if their crime isn’t sexual in nature, among other reforms.

Overall, however, it seems likely that the worst aspects of sex-offender registries will spread. Consider efforts by The Animal Legal Defense Fund to establish animal-abuser registries in various states. Legislators in California are already considering a bill. “The idea is to protect a vulnerable population at risk of abuse," spokesman Stephan Otto told USA Today—“much as sex-offender registries warn communities of sexual predators in the area, so the public, shelters and law enforcement can work together to keep animals safer.”

Two objections are worth raising.

Most obviously, animal cruelty shouldn’t be the focus of anti-recidivism efforts in a country where overwhelmed parole officers cannot even provide effective monitoring of convicted rapists, murderers, and child molesters.

And where else are registries of ex-convicts likely to lead? Originally, these lists were meant for rapists and child predators—a class of criminal stigmatized due to the especially odious nature of their crime and the perception that recidivism is especially galling and common.

As we’ve seen, however, it isn’t just sexual predators being affected by this approach; all sorts of crimes are now deemed offenses that make someone a sex offender, a designation that by now offers far more heat than light. Aren’t other lists as likely to end in abuses, especially if appellate judges don’t even acknowledge that being placed upon them is itself a punishment?

Certain categories of crimes, whether “terrorist” or “sex offender” or “animal abuser,” seem to tempt Americans into abandoning the normal rules that govern criminal justice. Inevitably, these departures wind up unfairly punishing people who don’t rightfully fit the hated labels, but are nevertheless branded with them.

Neither “sex offender” nor “terrorist” is going away as a label that invokes special sets of rules. Perhaps that is as it should be. But experience shows that extra vigilance is required to do justice when these designations are in play—and prudence demands that we go no further, lest we live in a country where it is commonplace for citizens to appear on various government lists that restrict ever more liberties for the sake of the children.

Conor Friedersdorf blogs at True/Slant and The American Scene. Follow him on Twitter at Conor64.