The Sex Offender Registry: A Lifetime of Punishment
There is almost no category of criminal offenses that carries the kind of stigma that sexual crimes do. Instantly, our minds go to the crimes that do the most physical, emotional, and psychological damage to the victims: rape, child molestation, or child pornography. These crimes are considered among the very worst acts that a human being can inflict on another, and those who commit them earn very little sympathy from the public, so it is unsurprising that the punishments for these crimes are extremely harsh. One punishment can potentially last for a lifetime, long after any prison sentence has been served and restitution has been paid.
That punishment is living life as a registered sex offender, subject to the requirements imposed by California Penal Code section 290.
Requirements of the Registry
California’s Sex Offender Registration Act (“SORA”) requires those convicted of certain sex offenses to register as a sex offender for the rest of their natural lives as long as they are living, working, or going to school in California, regardless of the seriousness of the offense or the date of conviction. California is one of only four states that require lifetime registration.
Under California Penal Code Section 290, a sex offender must register with local law enforcement agencies (police or sheriff) where he or she lives and works within five (5) working days of coming into the city or county. Additionally, if the registrant attends school on a college campus, he or she must also register as a sex offender with the campus police.
The law also requires re-registration annually. In some cases, a registrant may have to check in with the police every 30 to 90 days, depending on their conviction and whether the registrant is transient (“homeless”). People who are convicted of a sex offense requiring registration in other states almost always have to register in this state if they move to California or come here for a limited amount of time. Failure to comply with any of the requirements of SORA is a crime in itself, often punishable as a felony.
Punishing Violent and Non-Violent Offenders the Same
Most of us hear about the registry and never think twice about what crime put someone on the list. We just see the name, photo, and address, and we attempt to keep our distance, assuming that the offender is destined to repeat whatever crime they committed, and that being near them guarantees they will commit a violent crime against someone we love or ourselves. The truth is that many of the people on the registry are being permanently punished for non-violent offenses, some of which were committed when the offender was a teenager.
Did you and your high school sweetheart decide to have sex when you were both younger than 18? Depending on the difference in your ages, you could be on the list for violating California Penal Code section 261.5. Did you get caught urinating in public because you couldn’t find a bathroom? You could potentially be charged with indecent exposure under California Penal Code section 314, and on the list you go. Did your teenage daughter send a text message containing nude photos of herself to another teenager? That text message violates both state laws (California Penal Code sections 311.1 and 311.11) and federal laws (18 U.S.C. §§2251–2252) against child pornography, meaning both your child and the message’s recipient could have to register, too.
These are just a few examples of the kinds of acts that could land you on the sex offender registry, forcing you into a lifetime of restricted movements, public scorn, and persistent hounding by law enforcement.
The Registry Is Creating More Problems Than It Solves
The primary goals of registries like California’s are to 1) increase public safety by informing the public about the whereabouts of past offenders, 2) protect children from sexual offenders, and 3) reduce the chances of further offenses by the registrants. No one doubts that these are goals worth pursuing, but unfortunately the pursuit of these goals increases the burden on a group of people who have already paid the price for their mistakes, and often in ways out of proportion to the crimes they committed.
The registry law sweeps violent and non-violent offenders into the same category, and continues to punish them long after the conclusion of the offender’s sentence. Even victim’s rights advocates agree that registry laws go too far. Linda Walker, whose daughter Dru’s murder inspired the creation of a national sex offender registry, said, “”The registry is intended for the worst of the worst. We’re talking about violent offenders, not teens who were sexting or got involved in a sexual relationship.” 1
The registry also makes gaining employment more difficult, as many employers are reluctant to extend job offers to persons who are on the registry. Numerous studies have shown that having a job means that first-time offenders are less likely to become repeat offenders, which means that the registry may be directly defeating one of its own purposes.
Another problem created by sex offender restrictions is homelessness. The law prohibits
registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or a park, which often means that people who have already served their sentences find that there is very little room for them to find a vacancy in a place that fits those conditions.
The good news is that the courts appear to be recognizing that blanket restrictions create this problem. In 2011, four registered offenders in San Diego challenged the law. 2 All four were homeless: two lived in an alley behind the parole office, one lived in the San Diego riverbed, and the fourth lived in his van. The Fourth Appellate District court ruled the restriction to be “unconstitutionally unreasonable” because it did not allow case-by-case review by parole officers to determine if the housing that a registered offender sought would pose a threat to children. Less than three percent of the county’s housing was realistically available to registered offenders under that restriction, and even less when taking into account the fact that many landlords refused to rent to persons with that kind of criminal history. 3
Time for a Change
The registry is a good idea that is fraught with many problems, not the least of which is its ineffectiveness. From an enforcement standpoint, the registry has grown too large to be effectively managed, and often does not predict who the real dangers are in any community. There are nearly 100,000 people on California’s registry, including 900 cases where the offender’s last crime happened more than half a century ago. What’s more, 95% of solved sex crimes are committed by someone who is not on the registry. 4
To its credit, the California Sex Offender Management Board, which is the government board that oversees the registry, recognizes the need for a change, and is reviewing the policy. It is considering a change that would allow some low-risk and non-violent crimes to be removed from the registry. 5
The criminal justice system is about making people pay an appropriate price for the mistakes and wrongdoing, but it is also supposed to be the case that a person who pays the price gets another chance to prove he/she belongs in our society. The registry has its place in our criminal justice system, and maybe it is unrealistic to think that Californians will simply decide to get rid of it. This does not mean, however, that the law cannot be improved. It is time for a smarter, more targeted approach to the problem that identifies the most serious threats and does not leave a trail of collateral damage in its wake.
1. [Emanuella Grinberg, “Report: Registry Does More Harm Than Good for Teen Sex Offenders,” CNN, May 1, 2013, available at http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/01/living/juvenile-sex-offenders-rights/]↩
2. [In re Taylor, 290 P.3d 1171 (Cal. 2013)]↩
3. [Lorraine Bailey, “San Diego Sex Offenders Upset Residency Limit,” Courthouse News Service, September 14, 2012, available at http://www.courthousenews.com/2012/09/14/50302.htm.]↩
4. [Melody Gutierrez, “Board Wants to Remove Low-Risk Sex Offenders from Registry,” SFGate, May 25, 2014, available at http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/Board-wants-to-remove-low-risk-sex-offenders-from-5503219.php]↩