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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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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.