• Incarceration is not the worst sentence justice system can impose


    I’m a public defender. My clients would rather go to jail than register as sex offenders.

    When I first became a public defender, I believed the worst punishment that my clients would face would be time in jail. Since then, I’ve learned that incarceration is not the only — and perhaps not the worst — punishment the criminal justice system can impose. The registration requirements imposed on those convicted of sex offenses are unfairly harsh and punitive, though few recognize them as such.

    I had always assumed that sex offender registration was limited to those who committed the most egregious and dangerous offenses. I had also trusted that the Supreme Court was right when, in 2003, it stated that sex offender registration laws are not punishments but merely administrative requirements to protect public safety.

    But I realize now that many of my clients would choose to take on more jail time, more fees — anything to avoid being labeled a sex offender for life. That’s because our current sex offender registration laws apply an unbending and inhumane one-size-fits-all approach that does not prevent future sex crimes and in fact makes us all less safe.

    The registration process appears designed to make people fail. The rules are so complicated that few non-attorneys can keep up with them.


    Far too many people have to register as sex offenders

    The category of crimes that require one to register as a sex offender in California — which has more registered sex offenders than any other state— is a grossly overbroad one. It encompasses those who, have been convicted of sexual assault, but also people who committed even minor, misdemeanor conduct. There are the crimes one would expect to see labeled as serious sex offenses — rape, child molestation, sexual assault — but there are also offenses like peeing in public, which can qualify as indecent exposure. Similarly, grabbing someone’s butt or masturbating in one’s own car also qualify as sex registerable offenses, even though they are punishable as misdemeanors. We may not want to legalize those behaviors, but forcing someone to be labeled a sex offender for life over a misdemeanor that is only punishable at its maximum by six months in county jail is excessive.

    The state nonetheless treats all members of this “sex offender” class harshly, regardless of the underlying offense. All “sex offenders” must comply with strict requirements, including regular registration, residency restrictions, and lifetime consequences damaging their personal and professional lives long after they’ve served their time, including the public shaming of having their names, faces, and addresses plastered online by the government. Reasonable minds may differ about whether some of these restrictions make sense for the most violent offenders, but that’s only a fraction of the people affected by sex offender laws.

    Complying with the sex offender registry rules is a huge challenge

    The registration process appears designed to make people fail. The rules are so complicated that few non-attorneys can keep up with them. In California, a former sex offender with a steady place to live must register annually for life. But whenever he moves, he must register within five days of relocating (it’s only three days in some states). If he suddenly becomes homeless (likely because he can’t get a job with the public label “sex offender”) he must register as homeless within five days and then reregister as homeless every 30 days. In Georgia, it’s even worse: A homeless sex offender must register every time he changes sleeping locations within just 72 hours. 

    A man hands out information to neighbors, warning them to stay away from the home of a sex offender in the neighborhood.
    Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty

    Why the sex offender registry isn’t the right way to punish rapists.

    Registering itself is a cumbersome process. Oakland Police Department’s current voicemail message for sex registration-related inquiries states that in order to register, one must make an appointment at least a month in advance. It is hard to understand how one can be expected to register within five days of changing addresses if an appointment takes a month to set up.

    And even if one secures an appointment, he must often wait many hours at the police station — jeopardizing any job he was lucky enough to find — to be seen for the appointment. And when the appointment begins, there are rarely interpreters around or people to assist with reading the technical language. So even if you are, like many of my clients — homeless, mentally ill, and too poor to own a phone — you are nonetheless expected to either call a police station or show up in person, make an appointment over 30 days in advance, wait for hours at the police station on your appointment day (hardly a comfortable place for most of us, let alone someone with a criminal record), read and understand legal jargon on lengthy documents, and continue to do so every few weeks for the rest of your life.

    Some states have recently begun to recognize that residency restrictions frequently push people into homelessness, where they are more likely to commit crimes, and have eliminated them altogether. The former chairman of the Texas House Correction Committee, Ray Allen, who had once fought for tougher sex offender laws, has noted that “we cast the net widely to make sure we got all the sex offenders. Now, 15 years on, it turns out that really only a small percentage of people convicted of sex offenses pose a true danger to the public.”

    Even some prosecutors have come to recognize how misguided residency requirements are. Earlier this year, a California bill that would have allowed for local discretion to increase residency requirements was defeated early on after a group including the Alameda County District Attorney and the attorney general’s office opposed it, noting that the restrictions “actually increase the risk of sexual recidivism.” 

    Being deemed a sex offender for life carries with it other unwritten penalties. Not only is it infinitely more difficult to get a job or a place to live once one has been labeled a sex offender, but many mental health programs and drug or alcohol rehabilitation programs have policies banning sex offenders. Again, this lack of support and services only furthers the chances that these individuals will end up committing future crimes.

    The Brock Turner case is not representative of most sex offender cases

    Even though lawyers and policymakers recognize that strict sex offender laws are counterproductive, many politicians continue to cling to false narratives of the dangers of sex offenders — the same fear-mongering that led to the expansion of sex offender laws in the 1990s. Atypical cases like Brock Turner’s further fuel that sentiment and drum up support for tough sex offender laws. As a result, despite the lack of evidence demonstrating any public benefit to sex offender laws, these stigmatizing, burdensome, and unfair laws persist.

    Read the full article: http://www.vox.com/2016/7/5/12059448/sex-offender-registry

    Categories: Civil Rights, Legislating Morality, Statistics and Research

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    One thought on “Incarceration is not the worst sentence justice system can impose

    • Larry says:

      The only thing I did not understand or see in this article was in respect to the title of the article. The author never said what sentences were given out for “avoiding” a sex offense. Does any one see what he was talking about, or where he says anything about the title of the article other than the third paragraph where he is mentioning, “many of my clients would choose to take on more jail time, more fees — anything to avoid being labeled a sex offender for life.”? He failed to address this as to what crimes and what sentences. I don’t see his point because there is no crime involving a sexually motivated offense that would NOT put you on the registry.

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