Wednesday, July 6, 2016

legislating can be easy; legislating wisely requires more thought

Rachel Marshall, a public defender in Oakland CA, talks about how awful sex offender laws are
... many of my clients would choose to take on more jail time, more fees — anything to avoid being labeled a sex offender for life. That's because our current sex offender registration laws apply an unbending and inhumane one-size-fits-all approach that does not prevent future sex crimes and in fact makes us all less safe.
Imagine. Anything to avoid registration. We have so much evidence to show the registry does not prevent sex crimes or increase community safety that it is next to impossible to understand why registration is still required of anyone.

Registration sounds simple enough. All you have to do is to make sure the registry lists your current address. Marshall explains:
Registering itself is a cumbersome process. Oakland Police Department's current voicemail message for sex registration-related inquiries states that in order to register, one must make an appointment at least a month in advance. It is hard to understand how one can be expected to register within five days of changing addresses if an appointment takes a month to set up. 
And even if one secures an appointment, he must often wait many hours at the police station — jeopardizing any job he was lucky enough to find — to be seen for the appointment. And when the appointment begins, there are rarely interpreters around or people to assist with reading the technical language. So even if you are, like many of my clients — homeless, mentally ill, and too poor to own a phone — you are nonetheless expected to either call a police station or show up in person, make an appointment over 30 days in advance, wait for hours at the police station on your appointment day (hardly a comfortable place for most of us, let alone someone with a criminal record), read and understand legal jargon on lengthy documents, and continue to do so every few weeks for the rest of your life. 
The rest of your life can include getting old, which presents added difficulties that the law does not accommodate.
...I've had clients who continue to get arrested regularly for failing to register simply because they cannot remember to do it as frequently as they are required to and end up back in prison, where their health continues to deteriorate.
Our prisons are already overcrowded and overburdened by sick and elderly inmates, yet sex offender laws are set up to increase the number of sick and elderly inmates.

But public safety! Surely keeping an eye on convicted sex offenders makes our neighborhoods safer! Sadly, no. Emphatically, no.
Supporters of sex registration laws claim they promote public safety by ensuring that police can track offenders' whereabouts and keep them away from children. But no evidence supports the premise that public safety is thereby enhanced in any way; to the contrary, registration laws frequently lead to homelessness, instability, and more time in prison, all of which lead to a greater risk of future crimes. [My emphasis.]
If tracking these particular offenders is important, why write laws that lead so many to homelessness, a circumstance that makes tracking even more difficult?

Some jurisdictions have additional laws in place to prevent RSOs from living too near places that lawmakers imagine would lead them to re-offend. Such fevered imaginings crowd out any logic.
In Miami, Florida, local residency restrictions are so harsh — prohibiting sex offenders from living with 2,500 feet of any place children are likely to gather — they have rendered sex offenders homeless; because of the requirements, offenders have nowhere to live, other than remote, isolated places, like under a bridge or on train tracks. This doesn't exactly provide the support and stability research shows they need to avoid future sex offenses.
Again and again, we see that the registry gets in the way of employment, of housing, of a decent recovery from breaking the law.
Being deemed a sex offender for life carries with it other unwritten penalties. Not only is it infinitely more difficult to get a job or a place to live once one has been labeled a sex offender, but many mental health programs and drug or alcohol rehabilitation programs have policies banning sex offenders. Again, this lack of support and services only furthers the chances that these individuals will end up committing future crimes.
'Future crimes' rarely means sex crimes. Even faced with the difficulties caused by registration, registered sex offenders are still unlikely to commit another sex crime. When the registry shows a registrant who has more than one offense, remember that 'failure to register' can be categorized as a sex crime.

A registrant listed as having been convicted of three offenses on three different dates will certainly look like a dangerous neighbor (he just won't stop!) unless you know that the first offense was actually consensual sex with his younger girlfriend and the second and third offenses were failure to register.

Reading the whole thing will help you see why Marshall's clients would rather be incarcerated than to be on the registry.

To tempt you to read it all, I will tell you that Marshall discusses the Brock Turner case. You know the one. She says:
... the fury over the Brock Turner case has created a risk that we shift toward harsher penalties for sex offenses, without looking closely at what kinds of crimes are included in that category. We must avoid "one-size-fits-all" labels for those convicted of a broad range of offenses.
At a time when we are seeing the beginnings of bipartisan progress toward sentence reform that will reduce our incarceration rate and break up fewer families, do not let your legislators glom onto the emotional appeal of community safety or protecting the children in order to pass sex offender laws. Demand that they use evidence or data to back up proposed legislation.

As complicated and difficult as the registry is now, there is always the possibility that legislators can make it worse.

Do you know how to contact your state legislator?

1 comment:

Shelomith Stow said...

Thank you, Marie. Probably your very best post yet -- and that is saying something!