There’s no question that sexual assault is wrong. But, like other crimes, punishment shouldn’t mean the end of the offenders’ lives. Highlighting this issue is the case of a Washtenaw County teenager who’s fighting to remain off the state sex offender list for a crime he committed when he was 15 years old. State laws that require long-term registration on the sex offender list even after incarceration and parole create a social stigma around these people that ruins their lives. Michigan and other states should reevaluate their laws on sex offenses and work toward rehabilitating offenders rather than permanently ostracizing them.
Three years ago, a then-15-year-old Washtenaw County male was convicted of second-degree sexual misconduct after he grabbed a female classmate and touched her breast. The male was put on probation for 18 months, required to complete a sex offender rehabilitation program, avoid contact with the victim and register his name with a nonpublic sex offender registry for juvenile offenders. At the age of 18, he was legally obligated to reregister on a public adult sex offender list for the next 22 years. But his lawyer was able to successfully petition Family Division Judge Darlene O’Brien to keep his name off the public registry. O’Brien determined that 22 years of registration for the relatively mild offense qualified as “cruel and unusual punishment.” Washtenaw County prosecutors are appealing the decision.
This case aptly demonstrates why the sex offender registry is deeply flawed. This teenager may have committed a crime, but not one that’s memory should be shackled to him for much of his adult life. And some even less notable crimes — like public urination and streaking — can also land people on the list for 25 years. Such strict penalties for less serious crimes are patently absurd.
But having one’s name placed on a public sex offender registry is an unfair burden for more serious offenders, too, and often prevents their successful re-entrance to society. Being placed on a registry constrains the ability of sex offenders to find jobs or places to live. Last winter, a Michigan homeless man froze to death because the law prevented him, as a sex offender, from staying at local shelters. According to mlive.com, the local shelters also housed women and children, which means homeless sex offenders can’t use them (Man found dead in cold was turned away from shelters in past because he was sex offender, 01/28/2009).
A more extreme example is Florida, where the law requires convicted sex offenders to live at least 2,500 feet from public places where children gather. On Aug. 5, the Economist reported that due to limited housing options in Miami and the 2,500 feet law, many sex offenders have no choice but to live together under a bridge. The fact that sex offenders are unable to find a home in Michigan and nationwide is a tragic failing of the law.
The goal of the corrections system should be to prepare offenders for reintegration into society, not continue to punish them by removing them from society forever. Instead of prohibiting sex offenders from living a normal life after serving their time, sex offenders should participate in rehabilitation programs that prevent further offense and allow them to become productive members of society.
Sex offenses are terrible, but the fact that offenders are forced to live on the streets because of them is equally terrible. Legislatures should make rehabilitation the rule, not stigmatization.