Not a Monster: Why We Should Rethink Sex Offender Registrants

Can we restrain our moral outrage?

Can we restrain our moral outrage?

“Each of us is more than the worse thing we’ve ever done,” Bryan Stevenson declares in an inspiring 2012 TED Talk on the state of injustice in America. Current criminal legal reforms, like the #closerikers campaign, lead us to believe that even people who commit violent crimes are not criminal; they just behaved criminally.  The Office of Justice Programs (OJP) echoed those sentiments in “dispensing with useless and demeaning labels that freeze people in a single moment of time.” After all, people who commit criminal acts are our friends, families, neighbors, coworkers, and classmates; well, except sex offender registrants. Assuredly they’re all monsters, right?

The number of people registered for a sexual offense has ballooned to over 850,000, and included on the list are rapists, people with HIV, public urinators, teenage romances, and everyone in between. Many of them will be registered for life and saddled with myriad housing, employment, travel, and parenthood restrictions. The OJP, in their missive to amend their language usage, expresses a desire for people to have a chance to rebuild their lives. For people with sex offense convictions, however, the politics of outrage and fear stymies those desires for second chances.

Sensationalized media rhetoric leads us to believe all registrants are pedophiles or “baby rapers,” bound to commit another sexually-based offense against children, which is categorically untrue. Every day the American public is inundated with headlines that someone, somewhere, committed a sex crime; or, another former offender is released back into the community, rearrested, failed to register, or some other dramatized story. This trite rhetoric adds fuel to their fear and ignorance, and ignites costly and ineffective policies

We can all agree that what we want most from the criminal legal system is an assurance of public safety. To be fair, that’s an impossible standard as society will never be perfectly safe. The best we can do is mitigate risk. Legislation designed to track and monitor sex offender registrants might be fine if there was any evidence the sex offender registry enhanced public safety.

Years of research has determined that people with sex offense convictions have low rates of sexual recidivism and the punishment for these crimes does not prevent sexual violence. Yet, even with research returning the same results year after year, there has been a noticeable strengthening of the registry punishment paradigm. Arguing for lenient statutes to accurately reflect the evidence-supported realities of sex crimes is seemingly about as appealing as swallowing bleach.

To be clear, I am not advocating for the normalization of sexual offenses. Violent and coercive sexual assault is never appropriate. What I am saying is this public perception of people with a sex offense conviction conjures up a Frankenstein’s monster, a miscellany of advertised fears. This perception is woefully inaccurate and we need a greater understanding of not only what it takes to be labeled a “sex offender,” but also the deleterious effects of the registry.  

A sex offense conviction conjures up a Frankenstein’s monster, a miscellany of advertised fears.

We are rarely afforded a chance to see the human behind the “sex offender” label, before being convinced of their monstrousness. The narratives of people convicted of sex offenses are all unique, but we fail to realize it and often rely on media hyperbole and hysterics to form our opinion. If we were to take cues from several examples of our unjust criminal legal system, we would realize that we should rethink how we approach sexual offenses.

Take Zachery Anderson’s case in 2014 for example. Then 19, he captured national attention for engaging in consensual sex with a 14-year old Michigan girl who led Zachery to believe she was 17. Zach was convicted of a sex offense in spite of the pleas for leniency from the Michigan girl and her mother. The judge in Zach’s case, Dennis Wiley, was incensed by Zach’s participation in today’s online “hook-up” culture. Zach “went online, to use a fisherman’s expression, trolling for women, to meet and have sex with. That seems to be part of our culture now. Meet, hook up, have sex, sayonara. Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this whatsoever.” Judge Wiley sentenced Zach to 25 years of registration in both Michigan and Indiana, but intense public backlash eventually led to the sentence being vacated.

Nick Rhoades is HIV+ and, in 2008, he engaged in consensual and protected anal sex. For years, his antiviral cocktail suppressed his HIV virus and made transmission virtually impossible. While Nick didn’t transmit the virus to his sexual partner, it wasn’t enough to stop an Iowa court from convicting him for criminal transmission of HIV. Failing to disclose his HIV status to a sexual partner netted Nick a sentence of 25 years in jail and lifetime sex offender registration. While Nick ended up serving some time, public outcry eventually contributed to Nick’s release from both incarceration and sex offender registration requirements.

Photo courtesy jim epstein, reason.com

Photo courtesy jim epstein, reason.com

Josh Gravens was registered as a sexual offender for touching his 8-year-old sister’s vagina when he was 12-years-old. His mother reached out to a counselor for advice and was told she was legally required to report Josh’s behavior. The state got involved when his family declined to press charges, and Josh was convicted. He was released from Texas’ juvenile justice system three and a half years later and returned to high school. After a local paper included Josh in an expose on sex offenders, “he lost friends; people started ignoring or avoiding him, including teachers.” The social isolation eventually escalated to death threats, and for a long time after high school, Josh struggled. Eventually, Josh was removed from the registry and he became a staunch reform advocate, but even a decade and a half later it’s still a continual stream of instability. His long-term partner, “feels the long-lasting effects have been somewhat glossed over.” As she says, “it has defined his entire adult life to date, and unfortunately has been one housing, employment, and/or personal crisis after another.” All of this needless and constant hardship for one instance of adolescent curiosity.

These men, along with other registrants, and their loved ones are also subject to a dizzying array of collateral consequences due to their status as registrants. Family disruptions are common due to residency restrictions preventing registrants from residing near places children congregate. Children of registrants are also frequently harassed, isolated, and bullied at school. Juvenile registrants are less likely to “attach to social institutions such as schools and church,” thereby increasing their chances of entering into the school-to-prison pipeline, and more likely to commit suicide.  

Adult registrants report difficulties in finding and maintaining suitable employment and housing, and experience public shaming. These obstacles to community reintegration actually decreases public safety, because it sometimes, but not always, leads to a higher likelihood of re-offending. Frank Lindsay is a California registrant, who in 1979, at age 26, was convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with a minor under the age of 14. He served his time, including an offense-free probation, and built a family and a business. When Megan’s Law was enacted in 1996, the public notification provision published Frank’s information and he lost his business. His attempts to amend the wrongs he committed almost two decades earlier were undone overnight. In 2010, after 35 years of living without committing another crime, Frank was attacked in his home by a vigilante with a hammer. Frank luckily survived, but too often collateral consequences can prove fatal for not only registrants, but also their loved ones.

Justin committed suicide to avoid facing a lifetime of humiliation as a sex offender registrant.

At 17-years-old, Justin Fawcett had a consensual sexual relationship with a 14-year-old female classmate. This schoolmate documented her sexual encounters in her diary, which was later used to charge Justin and four others with felony criminal sexual conduct. Justin pled guilty to a lesser charge of seduction to avoid sex offender registration, and attempted to rebuild his life following his conviction. A year later, in spite of a plea deal, an appellate court ruling requiring registration for any sex offense with a minor forced Justin to register as a sexual offender. Justin committed suicide to avoid facing a lifetime of public humiliation, and in a unique twist, posthumously remained on Michigan’s registry for seven years.

In an instance of vigilante justice, Jeremy and Christine Moody targeted Charles Parker for his status as a sex offender registrant. The Moody’s parked outside Charles and his wife Gretchen’s South Carolina home, knocked on the door, and feigned car troubles. They shot Gretchen once in the chest, stabbed her multiple times and slit her throat; Charles was shot twice and also suffered from stab wounds. Both did not survive the attack.

The logical conclusion from these narratives is that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge, even as we’re consistently inundated with emotional rhetoric. This rhetoric causes us to harbor biases, and snap judgments don’t provide enough time to separate out the truth. “Sex offender” appears to reflexively mean child rapist, but, as these narratives demonstrate, the “sex offender” label also encompasses people criminalized for their HIV status and juveniles. It’s a one-size-fits-all label with indiscriminate collateral consequences that impact us all. Perhaps we should be open to listening to narratives before we lash out with knee-jerk reactions. Our reactions thus far have led to social ostracism, unemployment, and unstable housing; all of which increase the likelihood of re-offending. If we keep pushing registrants outside the margins, we cannot guarantee safer communities.  

I am not asking you to seek out the nearest registrant, hug them, and be their best friend. All I ask is for some critical questioning and a little consideration for the narratives behind the label, especially if you have experienced marginalization. Queers, women, people of color, people with criminal records, and low-income people all understand the feeling of being “Other-ed.” We mustn’t forget that.

If we keep pushing registrants outside the margins, we can’t guarantee safer communities.

Queers, especially, know what it’s like to be labeled deviant and worthless, and have our lives scrutinized and policed. Not too long ago, we were criminalized for our sexual desires, and, in many respects, we still are. It’s important to note many registrants are queer, and it’s largely a function of how America polices our sexuality and gender expression.

Not just queers, but all people, need to understand the ways in which the use and abuse of sex laws in our country has created an underclass of social pariahs. Clearly this is an uncomfortable topic fraught with emotional complications, but our singular approach has failed us. We cast a wide net, invariably catching juveniles who made dumb mistakes and people that screwed up; locked them up, and then threw away the key.

Registrants are rarely decarcerated; their physical bars are merely traded for digital ones. We cannot expect to fix the problem of sexual offending unless we work to prevent sexual abuse, and not just punish it. Registrants are systematically excluded from reform efforts, but perhaps we should rethink our sympathies. That, however, will require us to “start from the fundamental truth that everyone born in a human body is endowed with all human qualities and also with inalienable human rights—and move forward from there.”

Whether we can move this issue forward depends on if you ration your sympathies. We are all in this together as humans and as a community; understanding sex offender registrants shouldn’t be an us versus them scenario. Collectively, we can arrive at a solution that promotes public safety, strengthens communities, protects civil liberties, and restores dignity to harmed parties and harm doers, but we need to first set aside our blind outrage so we can listen.