Nessel: 'Bloated' sex offender registry act too punitive

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel addresses Michigan Civil Rights commissioners at Cadillac Place in Detroit, Friday afternoon, February 1, 2019, after they formally asked her to interpret the Elliott Larsen Civi Rights Act to encompass discrimination because of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Lansing — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel will build a conflict wall in her office to join in opposition to certain provisions in the state’s Sex Offender Registry Act that her Republican predecessor defended.

The Attorney General’s department will continue to defend existing state law regarding the registry in the Michigan Supreme Court, but Nessel on Friday filed briefs to oppose 2006 and 2011 amendments to the law.

“There are certainly dangerous sexual predators and the public needs to be protected from them,” Nessel said in a statement. “But the current requirements are not the way to achieve that goal.”

The amendments — which created strict in-person reporting requirements and geographic rules about where sex offenders could travel — constitute punishment and thus cannot be applied retroactively to people sentenced prior to the amendments, Nessel said in her filing.

The state’s rules “far exceed the baseline federal requirements for such registries,” the Plymouth Democrat wrote, and do not secure public safety or rehabilitation the way they were intended.

Nessel filed amicus briefs in two cases in Muskegon and Gratiot counties in which the 2006 and 2011 amendments were applied retroactively to men who pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct crimes in 1993 and 1995. The decisions in their cases will have a wider effect on other registrants, families, employers and communities, Nessel wrote.

The registry initially was confidential and used exclusively by law enforcement, but was made public in 1996, Nessel noted. Currently, Michigan's registry is the fourth largest in the country with 44,000 registrants and 2,000 added each year. 

The act’s 1,000-foot exclusion zone and a requirement to report in-person within three days any change in address, email address, higher education enrollment and use of a vehicle make it “difficult for registrants to engage in community and family life,” the brief said.

The registry inhibits rehabilitation and increases recidivism, the brief said, and the public aspect of the registry results in shaming, ostracization and bullying without regard for the severity of a crime.

Without an individualized assessment of each person, serious offenders are lumped in with those who are less of a threat to society, Nessel said.

“It has become a bloated statute whose recent amendments are out of touch with the practical ramifications,” she wrote.

The brief notes that while the Legislature could make changes to the act, the court's removal of unconstitutional portions would likely leave the law "incomprehensible."

Nessel said the sex offender registry act could be improved by limiting the registry to offenders who constitute a real public threat, her spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said.

“Recidivism rates could be reduced by eliminating the onerous requirements which make it difficult for offenders to work, live and re-integrate into their families and communities — in other words, be contributing members of society,” she said.       

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