It makes sense that convicted sex offenders should be subject to restrictions on where they live, particularly around school zones. And it makes sense that lawmakers and elected officials, if they’d like to keep their jobs, would advocate for the strictest regulations possible. But there’s a wealth of evidence to suggest that such restrictions may not, in fact, be keeping kids any safer, and indeed may be fostering an environment in which sex offenders are driven toward “homelessness, transience, and clustering of disproportionate numbers of offenders in areas outside of restricted zones.”
It was with this in mind that judges with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit considered whether the state of Michigan should have amended its Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) to include a passel of additional measures back in 2006 and 2011. Six plaintiffs in the case—all of whom were added to the state’s sex-offender registry before the new laws were passed—argued that such regulations are unconstitutional. And in a drastic departure from conventional thinking, the court agreed.
“What began in 1994 as a non-public registry maintained solely for law enforcement use...has grown into a byzantine code governing in minute detail the lives of the state’s sex offenders,” the court notes. Among other things, the Michigan legislature in 2006 barred registrants from living, working, or “loitering” within 1,000 feet of a school, a rule that effectively banishes sex offenders from large swaths of densely populated cities such as Grand Rapids (see map). “Sex Offenders are forced to tailor much of their lives around these school zones, and, as the record demonstrates, they often have great difficulty in finding a place where they may legally live or work,” the court says. “Some jobs that require traveling from jobsite to jobsite are rendered basically unavailable since work will surely take place within a school zone at some point....These restrictions have also kept those Plaintiffs who have children (or grandchildren) from watching them participate in school plays or on school sports teams, and they have kept Plaintiffs from visiting public playgrounds with their children for fear of ‘loitering.’”
Though not all sex offenders are equal threats to society, Reason points out that the current three-tiered system of delineation is far from fair. One of the plaintiffs, who was convicted at age 18 for having consensual sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend, is nevertheless categorized as Tier III, thus placing him in the same category as a violent rapist.
Furthermore, SORA’s restrictions are based on the imaginary premise that sex offenders are especially susceptible to recidivism. According to the court, there’s no evidence to support that theory, and Justice Department research actually holds that opposite—that sex offenders are less likely to recidivate than other criminals, and that undue strictures may hamper their ability to reintegrate into society.
In conclusion, here’s a timely case in point: On Friday, authorities put out warrants for 11 sex offenders who moved from their homes without notifying law enforcement—one of the contested requirements added to SORA in 2011. Registrants must also file notices whenever they change their names, buy or borrow a car, enroll in school, start a new job, switch to a new email address, or plan to travel longer than seven days. Failure to do so can result in a prison term as long as 10 years.
(h/t New York magazine)