The cornerstone: Paul Shannon and his legacy of reform

By Robin . . . In February 2019, renowned author and social activist Judith Levine gave a presentation entitled “The Feminist & The Sex Offender” at an event primarily sponsored by the Sex Offender Policy Reform Initiative (SOPRI). While I was unable to attend, after viewing the YouTube video of her talk, I found it to be very informative and insightful. However, NARSOL’S positions on a couple of issues need clarifying, and that is what this is intended to do.

Twenty-seven minutes into the video, Ms. Levine begins a portion of her talk which covers the development and rise of local initiatives aimed at reforming sex registry laws. She cites specifically to Paul Shannon’s 1999 petition To Safeguard our Children and our Liberties, which really began the nascent movement opposing the use of sex offender registries as legitimate public policy instruments in combating sexually based offenses. Several years later, Shannon’s petition would gain wider circulation when a revision was published by Counterpunch entitled An Urgent Call to Support the Well Being of Children and the Rights of Us All.

The second iteration of Paul Shannon’s petition would lay the cornerstone for the formation of Reform Sex Offender Laws, which held its first national conference in Boston in 2009. The significance of this first-ever, national gathering of concerned citizens committed to the abolition of sex offender registries would alter the landscape and spawn the formation of similar organizations throughout the United States. Ms. Levine does a fairly good job reviewing this critical period in the development of our advocacy, but there are a couple of things that need to be clarified for the sake of accuracy.

The same Paul Shannon is the founder and board chair for the National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws (NARSOL), which is the direct descendant of Reform Sex Offender Laws (RSOL). NARSOL is the oldest and largest extant civil rights organization exclusively dedicated to defending the rights of registered citizens and their families. Notwithstanding Ms. Levine’s singular recognition of Women Against Registry (W.A.R.)—which itself originated as a NARSOL (RSOL) project—as the “only” organization completely opposed to the use of sex offender registries, NARSOL has always opposed public sex offender registries in any form whatsoever.

Additionally, I think it’s important for our members and supporters to know that NARSOL has never supported residency restrictions for anyone. Any statements by or for NARSOL concerning residency restrictions for probationers or parolees is merely an acknowledgment that individuals in a post-release supervisory status are very likely to continue being subjected to restrictions and requirements imposed by sentencing orders or restrictions that are reasonably related to their post-supervisory rehabilitation and at the discretion of their supervising officers. Abolishing sex offender registries and the restrictions that attach to them is highly unlikely to do anything at all about the imposition of such restrictions in a post-release, supervisory setting. And, in any event, it’s not the focus of NARSOL’s advocacy.

While NARSOL has always advocated for the abolition of ALL public sex offender registries, there was a period of time when the idea of a law enforcement only (LEO) registry was floated as a reasonable alternative. But there was a serious, strategic purpose for this that might be overlooked or too easily dismissed by people concerned about the existence of a law enforcement only registry.

From its inception, NARSOL has focused much of its advocate energy on legislative lobbying. And whenever anyone is speaking to a state legislator or legislative committee, it is nearly impossible to be received in a serious manner if the pitch coming out of the box is “we want to get rid of sex offender registries.” In fact, this is darn near laughable as a reasonable posture for anyone to take before most legislative bodies, and it’s highly likely that NOTHING one has to say will be taken seriously after making such a statement. That’s just how polarizing our advocacy is in a legislative setting.

The LEO concept was a means to an end. It was simply a way of speaking to legislators and legislative bodies in a sensible manner by offering a reasonable alternative to public sex offender registries—an alternative that is already employed in places like Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Australia. And it’s noteworthy that this perspective was first advanced by Paul Shannon—the same individual who courageously stepped out in 1999 as a staunch opponent to the nation’s first generation of sex offender registries.

Nevertheless, NARSOL has since suspended its promotion of the LEO alternative for a number of valid reasons. First, and most prescient, NARSOL abandoned LEO because it wasn’t getting much attention. The idea just didn’t connect well at the grassroots level. Second, LEO was abandoned because there already IS a law enforcement only registry, and it’s called the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC), which is managed by the FBI. According to its website, the NCIC is “an electronic clearinghouse of crime data that can be tapped into by virtually every criminal justice agency nationwide, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

Whenever you are pulled over for even a minor traffic violation and no matter where you are in the nation, everything about your criminal history—even your arrest record—is immediately known to the law enforcement officer who has detained you. It merely requires a few clicks on a computer. In more rural, less affluent areas, it may still require a call to the dispatcher. In many states these days, it only requires scanning your license plate number (assuming you’re driving a vehicle registered in your name).

If you’ve been arrested for or convicted of a sexually based offense, the only way that a law enforcement officer won’t know that is if he or she simply doesn’t make an effort to look. Therefore, a law enforcement only “registry” already exists in every state in the nation. There is really no reason to create another one.

Third, NARSOL has occasionally been called to task for supporting a “bifurcated” registry: a registry that contains some individuals but not most individuals. The concept of a registry that only publicizes personal identifying information about the “worst of the worst” is a conversation that comes up frequently among advocates who work together against the present registration regime. There are many patrons of this perspective interspersed throughout the reform movement. In our estimation, the very idea that certain individuals continue to believe (and regularly repeat) that NARSOL is in favor of a limited registration scheme was the final basis for jettisoning the LEO alternative as a functional aspect of our national advocacy.

At our annual board retreat held this year in Houston, NARSOL adopted revised vision and mission statements in order to make abundantly clear our position regarding sex offender registries:

NARSOL’s Vision

NARSOL envisions a society free from public shaming, dehumanizing registries, discrimination, and unconstitutional laws.

NARSOL’s Mission

NARSOL opposes dehumanizing registries and works to eliminate discrimination, banishment, and vigilantism against persons accused or convicted of sexual offenses through the use of impact litigation, public education, legislative advocacy, and media outreach in order to reintegrate and reconcile affected individuals and restore their constitutional rights.

Thanks to the leadership and abiding dedication of Paul Shannon in his effort to bring awareness to the evils of sex offender registries, a great many people have been inspired to follow suit. From this fountainhead has flowed a host of positive, progressive efforts at challenging the existence of sex offender registries and the flimsy, often fabricated, statistical claims in support of their continued use. Yet, as the forerunner to most of the organized efforts throughout the United States, NARSOL—founded by Shannon—is routinely misunderstood, misrepresented, and, in more extreme cases, outright maligned and viciously assaulted.

But—and this is what’s most important to take away from this—if YOU should hear anyone say or read anything written that suggests NARSOL is not totally committed to abolishing sex offender registries, it is a lie. If you hear or read anything about NARSOL agreeing to some form of residency restrictions, that is also a lie. And the same is true if you hear or read anything about NARSOL favoring a registry just for the “worst of the worst.”

In fact, aside from questions of style and approach, if you hear or read anything about NARSOL that seems hard to swallow or sounds over-the-top, that’s because it is. And you are very likely listening to or reading the ramblings of someone who is less concerned about accomplishing the goals we’ve set for ourselves than who ends up getting the credit.

“The last act is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” -T.S. Eliot

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Robin Vander Wall

As vice chair of NARSOL, Robin is the managing editor of the Digest, director of development, and provides assistance to the webmaster in keeping our websites running smoothly. He also serves as founder and president of Vivante Espero, NARSOL's 501(c)(3) foundation and legal fund.

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    • #52928 Reply
      Robin Vander Wall
      Robin Vander Wall
      Admin

      By Robin . . . In February 2019, renowned author and social activist Judith Levine gave a presentation entitled “The Feminist & The Sex Offender”
      [See the full post at: The cornerstone: Paul Shannon and his legacy of reform]

    • #52940 Reply
      Avatar
      Mike

      I hope you will always hold true to your to your vision statement. I don’t support any type of a registry for anyone. A registry will eventually take away everyone’s liberty.

    • #52946 Reply
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      David G

      How about doing something about these ridiculous lifetimw gps tether for people who werent even accused of having intercourse. Thats what i got… And no one will gelp me cause im just another low life sex offender.

      • #52969 Reply
        Avatar
        Kristen

        David – there is encouraging movement on lifetime GPS. I think GA just had their statue ruled unconstitutional. I’m not sure where you are, but if you happen to be in MI our family just fought against a lifetime tether and won in court. There are victories and people willing to help.

      • #53042 Reply
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        Robert

        David G. The first help for you is stop calling yourself a low life.

    • #52955 Reply
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      jjjj

      More and more (especially very recently) I read articles that point to legislators trying to remove certain people from the registry. These attempts are aimed mainly, as I read it, towards Romeo/Juliet’s and peeing-on-the-side-of-the-road offenses. Many registered citizens applaud these small concessions as perhaps chipping away at the iceberg.
      WATCH OUT!
      In my opinion, the people in the know are starting to realize that our ranks of registered citizens are growing at a healthy clip. They are afraid of we registered ones gaining political clout by 1) our sheer numbers 2) our combining monetary resources, and 3) the sheer ridiculousness(!) of the SO laws.
      They are trying to DIVIDE AND CONQUER.
      Please don’t buy into it! Stand firm TOGETHER IN UNITY! The Florida Action Committee Motto is so true: “With UNITY comes change!”
      ALL REGISTRIES REEK OF FASCISM, NAZISM, VIGILANTISM!!!
      All registries violate basic human rights!
      Stand firm. BE ANGRY (but focused and credible)!

    • #52956 Reply
      Avatar
      Timothy

      Registry in this case refers to gov using databases to both inform the public in general of what they or LEO could already find elsewhere. Redundancy is inefficiency. The upholding of public broadcasts on the World Wide Web has been approved by the unelected sworn to uphold ratified manifest evil under Art1 sec 10, both in the plain indentured servitude experienced by maintaining the people’s database property AND the use of language forbidden to congresses ALL 51,. It none the less, a plain machine it is.
      Both parties embraced “Was in prison for……a sex crime…” so neither abide by ratified struck as foundational. It is proof enough such electronic agendas need proper tending necessarily; as man is more necessary than any people’s need for data, especially distorted data. Who is it exactly ” all for” the enslavement of man to state’s machine database and maintenance.

      Data is a commodity, free data will be an issue as data need necessarily overcomes the right to remain silent. All registrants are now forbidden to remain silent, save FTR. Registration forms are nothing less than agents in a mail box waiting to enter your domicile. I’ve refused, going on three months, indictment inevitable on FTR. Look forward to picking a jury hopefully this year. Advocacy is one thing, FTR another , but each method informs the people. What manner of free men would throw off their god given rights to
      Speech AND not to speak.

    • #52966 Reply
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      obvious answers

      I admire the effort and I agree..Sentencing is the point in time where a judge has the responsibility to weigh in the severity of the crime, the potential rehabilitative nature of the offender, the victim, and societal impacts of the crime. At that time the judge is responsible to apply a sentence that is tailored to the perpetrator and the crime committed with an eye to public safety and future rehabilitation, NOT to revenge nor public onion or assisting the next election cycle. If the offender is “the worst of the worst” that needs to be taken into account at time of sentencing and be incorporated into the original sentence. With that being said there is and never will be and never was a justifiable excuse for a registry.

      Unfortunately reality is still stained: It is a scarlet letter of revenge that serves no other purpose then the public shackling, stocks and branding did in the past..Shaming. ..ANS even the most ignorant understand this truth..So if everyone knows the truth yet registry’s are still popular then it tells you also anouther truth!..People love humiliating and torturing others for the sake of humiliating and torturing others..If the law said it was a register-able offense to like or wear the color blue and those people were inferior then I can promise society would be just as eager to brand anyone in blue..

      • #52980 Reply
        Avatar
        Mike

        “People love humiliating and torturing others for the sake of humiliating and torturing others.”

        That is a very wise and true statement!

    • #52968 Reply
      Sandy Rozek
      Sandy Rozek
      Admin

      As a NARSOL board member for quite a few years now, I have so much respect for Paul and his work in many civil rights areas and his vision that we all share of a world without shaming, life-destroying registries. Every day I become more convinced that the sexual offense registry is a horrible blight on society and a sin against mankind and the essential value of forgiveness.
      I must, though, address the concept of “chipping away,” as it has been called. We will chip away. We will fight for and celebrate every ruling that relieves any from the registry. We will rejoice over a retroactive Romeo and Juliet law that frees hundreds or thousands of individuals from past and future registration. We will celebrate decisions that find certain applications of SORNA to be punishment and therefore not applicable retroactively. We will not refuse such laws and say, “Oh no, that doesn’t get everyone so we don’t want it.”
      The registry did not become the monster that it is in one fell swoop, and it will not be dismantled, barring a miracle from God or the Supreme Court, in one fell swoop. Anything and everything that makes life a little bit better for those forced to register or that removes any segment of those required to register from that burden will be celebrated. We will never be through until it is all totally gone, and we will never take our eyes off of the ultimate prize, but we will rejoice over every step toward that victory.

      • #53036 Reply
        richardmc
        R M

        The problem with “chipping away” at this nonsense is that we chip away one restriction/law/etc and they add 10 new ones.

    • #52974 Reply
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      Scott Ingalsbe

      I lost my employability due to being un insurable due to being on the registry for a misdemeanor I am nearing retirement and have lost my ability to care for my family this has to stop.

    • #52972 Reply
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      Mike Hall

      Excellent, well written piece, Robin. Thanks for all you do at NCRSOL and at NARSOL. And thank you Paul for getting the ball rolling in 1999! See you guys in Houston.

      • #53013 Reply
        Robin Vander Wall
        Robin Vander Wall
        Admin

        Thank you, Mike! Looking forward to seeing you in Houston.

    • #52973 Reply
      Avatar
      Glen

      While I hope for a landmark victory that would find the entire registry scheme unconstitutional, I’m appreciative for even the small victories that chip away at the foundation.

      It’s not so unlike many other cases through out US judicial history that took time and incremental victories to finally put an end to unconstitutional laws…from women’s suffrage, to slave and minority rights. In retrospect, we can all look back on those errors and see the clear unconstitutionality of those draconian laws and the attempts to alter them over time in ways to make them “less oppressive and more constitutionally acceptable”. Plessy vs. Ferguson to Brown vs board of education….it was the chipping away at the laws over time, and the slow awakening of the public conscience that finally found oppressive laws to unacceptable and contrary to the Constitution. We are on that same road.

      There will be a day when the foundation of the registry crumbles. Ive no doubt. My hope is I will live to see that day.

    • #52986 Reply
      Will Mingus
      Will

      I think this is a critical statement to make, and I personally appreciate it, Robin. At Illinois Voices, we are often criticized for advocating for the elimination of all registries. People tell us it’s unrealistic and will make us look like nuts. I have to explain that there is a difference between our underlying philosophy of opposing all registries, and the arguments we use in our public debate. The important thing is that we keep the main goal of eliminating registries in mind no matter what argument we’re make so that, whatever we do, we don’t undermine that overarching goal. Arguing that some people should be on the registry while others should not legitimizes registries, and then the debate shifts from the efficacy and constitutionality of registries to who should or should not be included on them. On the latter argument, everyone loses. No matter how good someone thinks their argument is as to why “they” shouldn’t be on the registry, society will always err on the side of caution, and if they think the registry is effective, lawmakers will push to add more and more people to it. Bottom line is that, as advocates, we all have to maintain the basic premise that ALL registries are ineffective, unconstitutional, and unfairly burdensome. This basic premise needs to inform everything we do, whether or not we state it during public debates.

    • #53001 Reply
      Avatar
      d

      AOC of the democratic party is threatening to put her own people on a list as punishment for cooperation with the other side yet they still act like they do not think it is punishment.

    • #53069 Reply
      Avatar
      Tyrus Young

      Any chipping away at the registration of any offender class can be appreciated. But one of the several reasons may well be that as the offender list grows, it is becoming far more costly and time consuming for LEOs to maintain and monitor it. Which brings the idea of fighting for additional categories of registrants to appear to be a working idea. Why not subject every convicted person guilty of a violent crime or one that leads to harm of others (drug dealers, assault perpetrators, domestic abusers, etc.) Their numbers for recidivism are far higher. Lets require all to be subject to this unconstitutional punishment. The theory behind registering offenders is to protect the community… if so, get serious about it.

      Two decades ago during a group counseling session, the counselor was asked why the above wasn’t done. He answered that it would quickly overburden the agencies required to maintain it and the system would collapse. So, lets overburden it… eventually the entire system would land in court… at which point, the recidivism argument becomes a major focus. How can society and the courts rule that perpetrators with a 60+% recidivism rate escape a registry. but ones with >5% chance be subjected to it.

      Or maybe we should have a registry for illegal aliens! Millions on a list warning employers, neighbors and the general community of those threatening to impact their American freedoms. Congress just voted on a bill banning all forms of hate and discrimination. How about they apply it to everyone.

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