A patchwork approach to the nation’s sex offense registry laws is leaving many of the 900,000 people on the country’s registries with a stark choice as COVID-19 sweeps the country: risk their lives or risk their freedom.
This week, a California man had to decide between putting his and his 65-year-old parents’ health at risk or potentially going to prison. Another is already in violation of his state’s law because he spent more than three days in the hospital with his pregnant spouse without first appearing at his local police department to report that he would be away from home. If he had left the hospital to try to report, he wouldn’t have been allowed to return because of the risk of spreading coronavirus. In Rochester, New York, a man on a registry called his local police department to tell them he had symptoms of COVID-19. He was told to report in person anyway.
While many of the country’s law enforcement agencies are finding ways to modify how they administer their sex offense registry laws, others are defying public health directives by forcing people to crowd into police stations in close contact with each other, members of the public, and law enforcement officials.
A survey by The Appeal of actions being taken by states and agencies across the country found what Mary Sue Molnar, an advocate for reform of Texas’s registry laws, called a “patchwork of registering requirements” that, in many cases, are leaving people with past sex offense convictions in a dangerous legal limbo.
The Oregon State Police have suspended in-person registrations and now require phone registration. In Texas, according to Molnar, executive director of Texas Voices for Reason and Justice, “there is no statewide policy regarding in-person registration and individual registering offices are conducting registration as they see fit.” Some law enforcement agencies are moving to phone or email reporting while others are still requiring registrants to appear in person.
Per its website, Douglas County, Nebraska, still required people to report in person as of March 27, while in Washington State, Snohomish County was suspending “services” to people on the registry until April 6. Sioux City, Iowa, Jackson County, Missouri, and the Virginia State Police were also telling registrants and would-be registrants to get in touch by phone or online. Defense attorneys in St. Louis and Pittsburgh told The Appeal that both St. Louis and the Pennsylvania State Police have suspended in-person reporting.