Editorial: Court takes step to rein in sex registry
A federal appeals court panel has injected some common sense and fairness into Michigan’s sex offender registry. Now lawmakers should finish the job by getting rid of this archaic list that has served more as tool for ruining lives than protecting the public.
The 6th Circuit Court panel ruled in a case brought by five anonymous registrants who claimed changing the registry’s rules and applying the changes retroactively doesn’t pass constitutional muster. That spares those already on the list from having to constantly adjust to new layers of compliance each time the Legislature decides to get tough on perverts.
Except that many of those who land on the sex offender registry aren’t perverts at all, nor are they sexual predators who present a danger to society.
Two of the registrants who brought this lawsuit were older teenagers who had consensual sex with their younger teen girlfriends. Another was 23 when he had sex with a 16-year-old girl he met at a club restricted to those 18 and older. The two later married.
Even though the sexual contact was all in the confines of a consensual relationship, the men will spend years on the sex registry, living with what has been constantly tightening restrictions and reporting rules. Some on the list must remain there for life, with no chance of getting their names removed.
The appellate panel said the changing compliance environment isn’t legal. Michigan lawmakers imposed harsher restrictions in both 2006 and 2011 and made them retroactive, so those already on the list had to meet the new requirements.
Judge Alice Batchelder, a conservative judge, wrote for the three-judge panel: “As dangerous as it may be not to punish someone, it is far more dangerous to permit the government under the guise of civil regulation to punish people without prior notice.”
Significantly, the judges said the restrictions imposed by the sex registry amount to a form of punishment. That opens the door for future challenges to the registry, which has insisted it serves only a regulatory function.
The registry does amount to perpetual punishment. Registrants can’t live or work within 1,000 feet of a school, for example, making it impossible for many of them to find homes or jobs, particularly in smaller communities. They also are required to frequently report their whereabouts and activities.
These are people who have already paid their debt to society through either prison sentences, fines or other penalties. Continuing to restrict them from doing such everyday things as attending their children’s school functions or limiting their residential and career options without assessing whether they present a risk to the community serves no purpose beyond vindictiveness.
Michigan has the country’s fourth-largest sex registry, with 42,700 names. You can get on it for actual sexual assault, or for a silly teenage prank like streaking, or even for urinating outdoors.
Teenage trysts should not be a ticket to the sex registry. Nor should isolated incidents of poor judgment.
For the registry to truly serve to protect the public, it must be pared down to contain only serious offenders who pose a real and ongoing threat.