Our communities deserve effective public-safety measures that are based on facts and sound research, not wasteful and counterproductive measures born of fear. We all want to be safe. We have to demand our legislators pass laws that work and actually keep us safe.
That’s especially true when it comes to sexual offenses.
A Michigan man we’ll call John Doe met a woman in 2005 at a club open only to those ages 18 and up. He didn’t know it when they slept together, but she was actually 15. Today, 12 years later, they are married with two children. But John was also arrested and placed on Michigan’s sex offender registry for the rest of his life.
He has lost countless jobs when employers learned of his status. He’s been periodically homeless, unable to live with his wife and kids. He can’t even attend his own children’s basketball games or see them graduate from high school.
John is not alone.
There are thousands of men and women across the country who have received life sentences — not to remain behind bars — but rather to suffer and endure the stigma and discrimination that follows anyone whose name appears on a sex offender registry.
But things are looking up for John. This month the U.S. Supreme Court left in place a lower court’s decision that Michigan’s sex offender registry law is so ineffective that it is unconstitutional. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals not only found that Michigan’s registry treats those on it as “moral lepers,” but also concluded, based on a mountain of evidence, that registries don’t keep people safe.
As the Court pointed out, registries may actually increase offending and have “at best, no impact on recidivism,” probably because they make it so “hard for registrants to get and keep a job, find housing, and reintegrate into their communities.”
Michigan will have now have to rewrite its unconstitutional registration law. The only moral and logical thing for Michigan — and other states — to do is to abolish the sex offender registry.
Why? Well, for starters, registries just don’t work.
The scientific consensus is that registries don’t actually do anything to prevent sex offenses, which means they’re an enormous waste of taxpayer resources. Michigan’s registry, the fourth largest in the country, is bloated, with nearly 44,000 registrants, and growing by about five people every day. There are more than 850,000 registrants nationwide.
Registries are dangerous because they push registrants to the margins of society, making it harder for them to get jobs or an education, find homes or take care of their families. Draconian restrictions mean registrants face years in prison if they to do something as simple as borrow a car without immediately notifying the police. And the internet has turned these registries into modern-day scarlet letters, leading to harassment and even vigilantism.
The good news is that there are effective ways to keep our families and communities safe. We need to focus on prevention and support the critical work being done by sexual assault survivor groups. We need to recognize that the vast majority of child sex abuses cases — about 93 percent — are committed by family members or acquaintances, not strangers, and focus on where the real danger is.
We need to educate our children, not only so that they don’t become victims, but also so they don’t do things, like sending inappropriate texts that could land them on a registry. And we need to partner with the treatment community so that people get the help and services they need to lead productive lives.
It’s possible that the Supreme Court will eventually strike down a state’s sex offender registry law. But we don’t need to wait for the high court to rule on sex offender registries before taking action. Congress should replace the Sex Offender Registry National Act (SORNA), a misguided law that incentivizes states to continue these failed policies, and redirect those resources to prevention, treatment and support of survivors.
Let’s replace our broken registry with a comprehensive system that actually protects our communities. We owe it to our kids.
Miriam Aukerman is a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Michigan and manages the ACLU’s West Michigan Regional Office. Aukerman litigates high-impact cases on a broad range of civil liberties issues, with a particular focus on immigrant rights, poverty and criminal justice.