Registry and other restrictions on “sex offenders” serve punitive, not safety, purpose

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By Jacob Sullum . . .  The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear Louisiana’s appeal of a decision against its 2006 law requiring that people on the state’s sex offender registry carry IDs or driver’s licenses that say “SEX OFFENDER” in orange capital letters. A year ago, the Louisiana Supreme Court concluded that the requirement amounted to compelled speech and could not be justified by the state’s legitimate interest in protecting public safety. In addition to raising First Amendment issues, Louisiana’s now-moribund law illustrates the longstanding tendency to impose additional punishment on people convicted of sex offenses in the guise of regulation.

The registries themselves, which require sex offenders to regularly report their addresses to local law enforcement agencies so that information can be made publicly available in online databases that also include their names, photographs, and physical descriptions, are primarily punitive, exposing registrants to ostracism, harassment, and violence while impeding their rehabilitation by making it difficult to find employment and housing. There is little evidence that the sort of public notification practiced by every state delivers benefits that outweigh those costs. Louisiana’s experiment in ritual humiliation, which branded registrants with orange letters they had to display in every transaction that required producing a government-issued ID, compounded those costs without offering any plausible benefits.

One problem with sex offender registries is that they cover a wide range of crimes, including many that do not involve violence, force, or physical contact. While people tend to imagine rapists or child molesters when they hear the term sex offender, the reality can be quite different, in ways that are important in assessing the danger that a person might pose to the general public or to people in particular age groups. . . .

The second line of each record in the state’s registry shows the offender’s “tier,” which corresponds to various crimes classified by severity, ranging from Tier 1 (least serious, requiring registration for 15 years) to Tier 3 (most serious, requiring lifetime registration). Further down in the record, you can see the statute under which the registrant was convicted (e.g., “carnal knowledge of a juvenile”), which still omits potentially important details.

The driver’s license warning required by Louisiana’s law did not provide even that much information, meaning that anyone who saw it was invited to assume the worst. Tazin Hill, the man who challenged the law, completed his prison sentence in 2013. He was convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old when he was 32, which placed him in Tier 1. But anyone who saw his license had no way of knowing the nature or severity of his offense. Rebelling at this government-imposed badge of shame, Hill excised the “SEX OFFENDER” label from his license and covered the gap with clear tape, which resulted in the criminal charges that gave rise to this case.

Another problem with sex offender registries is the mistaken assumption that people who fall into this broad category are more likely to commit additional crimes than, say, robbers, burglars, or arsonists. When it upheld mandatory “treatment” of sex offenders in prison, for example, the Supreme Court relied on a highly dubious recidivism estimate that was repudiated by its original source but has nevertheless been cited repeatedly by lower courts. The “SEX OFFENDER” stamp on Louisiana driver’s licenses, even more than the registry, promoted such erroneous fears by implying that the bearer posed an ongoing threat, no matter the details of his crime, how long ago it occurred, or how he had behaved since he completed his sentence.

The empirically unjustified belief that sex offenders are highly prone to recidivism is especially inaccurate and damaging when applied to people convicted as minors, who are included in Louisiana’s registry and therefore had to carry “SEX OFFENDER” IDs or driver’s licenses.

Read the complete piece here at Reason.

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7 Thoughts to “Registry and other restrictions on “sex offenders” serve punitive, not safety, purpose”

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  1. Perry P.

    This is The Old Salem Witch Hunts of long ago. One must wonder when The Congress will finally look at the real evidence based facts, and then act to get rid of these Punitive Laws, and they all know they are anyway. I think they put more value on getting Elected or keeping a current Congressional Seat, than Human Lives and Families.

    1. WC_TN

      Of course they do! As long as their nests are feathered and nice and cozy comfy, they could care less what happens to us. And don’t forget; they’re parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, older brothers & siters as well…They have the same guttural reaction as most other people to the crimes that involve little kids and that animosity runs bone-deep. Not that I defend sexually abusing or exploiting innocent little kids; I do not. However, we have to acknowledge the depth of emotion involved with this topic.

  2. Tim in WI

    Compelled speech and the database. Go figure! Precisely what gov commands with registration requirements – compelled speech. The speech is stored on a database for easy and convenient use, sometimes against the liberty of the compelled. More and more we’re seeing just how contrary to the general welfare unfettered database use is. Naturally the machine makes a darn poor crime condom. Far more crime and other social ill has been enabled via the database driven infrastructure than has been circumvented by it! Chasing your tails for cyber security that can always be breached has to be the dumbest thing ever. Never has it been in the interest of the people to intentionally ignore constitutional prohibitions upon government actions.

  3. WC_TN

    The courts even misquoted Robert Freeman-Longo when citing his “Psychology Today” article. The court opinion only cited 85%, but the article actually said 85% OF UNTREATED will go on to re-offend. I know that number is false as well, but the court either misquoted or intentionally misrepresented the figures so that they would feel they had the “legitimate” grounds to make that ruling in McKune v. Lile.

  4. H n H

    I pulled up to a truck yesterday that had printed on it “shoot your local pedophile” with a white outline of a guy holding a gun to some other figure down on the ground.. Somehow this is OK and praised. It’s not hate speech, it’s fine. And people like that would live to use the registry to find their next target. I think it’s summed up best that politicians do what’s best for their own reelection and security than what’s best for people. The entire registry is beyond wrong. There isn’t any facet of it that offers any positive impact on anyone other than those enforcing it.

    1. R. Arens

      Sounds like something you’d see in Iowa.

  5. Tommy D

    The registries are retribution not rehabilitation nor informative. These create a 21st century Leper that is forever shamed and damned from society. Never forget that Deprivation of any Liberty is Punishment. Justice is suppose to be blind and Mercy is applied to all….except those who adorn the label “Sex Offender”. Anytime you see and treat a person as an object…that dehumanization is the exact way a person offends to begin with. Objectification, Labels, Brand Loyalty and the Beliefs that support them. Ah, the great American way. Besides other than drug trafficking; the money made off sex offenders is dam right outrageous. The book, “The Scarlet Letter” says it all. Anyway, why not Register drug dealers, murderers, white collar types, why not just poster child and bill board all crimes…but can’t do that, Politicians kids get into trouble…heaven forbid we send fliers to the neighbors and place signs in their yards on on their licenses and make them as alien as possible, might affect political careers. Ex Post Facto. Deprivation of Liberty is Punishment. Forgiveness and Mercy are also suppose to be blind….unless you have the Label. Good Luck with your battle and keep on keeping on. Oh in 1996 there was a 1.2% chance a murderer would commit another crime. 3.2% for a Sex Offender and get this ….78% chance of recidivism; for all other crimes. People that commit sex offenses got to eat don’t they, sometimes they go and commit crimes which skews the statistics. I have with these folks, most don’t do anything and want to reintegrate in peace. When the politicians Legislatively punish retroactively apply it and Police and Parole Officers are dam determined their job is to punish…not protect. Again the 21st Century Leper is borne. May God above change what humans cannot…their minds. Amen