As if the saga of Michigan’s online sex-offender registry was not already convoluted enough, a column in the Detroit Free Press last week revealed yet another glaring injustice arising from the registry’s overzealous rendering of “sex offenders.” A local attorney filed suit against the state on behalf of eight men who have been forced to remain on the list for the mandatory 25 years even after their criminal records were formally expunged. This case is just the latest in a series of major grievances against the deeply flawed registry, and it highlights the urgent need for the Legislature to reform Michigan’s clumsy and often discriminatory treatment of sex offenders.
Forcing past offenders to remain on the list even if a court wipes clean their criminal record is just one of many problems that plague the registry. Though it was originally intended to help families protect their children, the registry has done little more than stir up neighborhood-watchdog anxieties and bring undue public scrutiny on former offenders who have already served their sentences.
The current legal definition of “sex offender” is woefully broad. The registry lumps a range of offenses into one consolidated group. It equates minor offenses with serious crimes and automatically anticipates more wrongdoing even after a subject is released from prison. Any student caught urinating in public repeatedly could find his name on the list for the next 25 years. Depending on age, sex between consenting teenagers also can fall into the registry’s irresponsibly wide grasp. The public perception of the registry is deeply rooted in irrational fears, so regardless of the severity of their crimes, all former offenders on the list face a similar social stigma – and, in many cases, vandalism and threats of violence.
The case follows the recent announcement of a possible new feature to the online registry that would allow residents to sign up to receive an e-mail should a sex offender move into their neighborhood. Although helpful for the concerned parent, the program only furthers the general paranoia toward sex offenders, implying that residents should feel threatened when a registered offender arrives in town.
While the mere existence of a compulsory online registry for one broad category of former criminals is dubious in itself, it is imperative the state Legislature addresses the injustices the current system has created. Rep. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek) is leading a state House subcommittee that is giving Michigan’s sex-offender registry a much-needed second look. The subcommittee would do well to consider the needless damage the current registry has caused in the lives of those convicted of minor offenses long ago as well as those who are genuinely rehabilitated.
The public certainly deserves protection from dangerous offenders – that’s why society doles out prison terms. But by equating consensual teenage sex and urinating after a late night at the bar with rape and child molestation, the current registry fails to serve that purpose. Treating all individuals convicted of a sexual offense as pathological threats to society regardless of the specifics of the case simply abandons the role of rehabilitation as a necessary part of any criminal justice system.