By William Buhl, J.J. Prescott, and Miriam Aukerman . . .
In early 2012, more than eight years ago, five people challenged Michigan’s Sex Offenders Registration Act (SORA) in court, arguing that the registry branded them as dangerous “sex offenders” without any individual review.
One was a man — we’ll call him John — who met a woman at a club open only to those 18 and older. They slept together and only later did he learn that she was actually 15. They fell in love, eventually married, and now have three kids. But due to her age, John was prosecuted and put on the sex offender registry. As a result, he has lost countless jobs, was often homeless and unable to live with his family, and couldn’t even attend his own kids’ basketball games.
Another man in the lawsuit — we’ll call him Paul — never even committed a sex offense. In 1990 when he was 20, he tried to rob a McDonald’s. But because he threatened the manager’s teenage son — an offense charged as “child kidnapping” even though it had no sexual component whatever — he was placed on the sex offender registry for life.
John and Paul won their case in 2016, when the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that SORA is unconstitutional. The court not only found that Michigan treats registrants as “moral lepers,” but it also concluded, based on a mountain of evidence, that registries don’t make people or communities safer.
As the court pointed out, registries may actually increase offending and have “at best, no impact on recidivism,” probably because they make it so “hard for registrants to get and keep a job, find housing, and reintegrate into their communities.”
Despite the Court’s ruling, and despite the scientific consensus that registries don’t do anything to prevent sex offenses, neither the Michigan Legislature nor the executive branch did anything to reform our state’s registry. Instead, Michigan continues to waste millions of taxpayer dollars on running the registry, paying legal bills to defend it, and incarcerating people for technical registry violations, not to mention forcing local police departments to spend scarce public safety dollars on pointless tasks like tracking whether a registrant borrows a car. That’s all money that could have been more effectively invested in survivor, prevention and rehabilitative services.