registry reform

An op-ed was published on Saturday, January 11, 2020 about the sex offense registry in CT and can be found at this link:

https://www.courant.com/opinion/op-ed/hc-op-gilchrest-sex-offender-registry-0110-20200110-ribwhef6wbafjm254nfv6c3mmu-story.html   Below is a paragraph by paragraph response to that article.  The first line in each section is intended to be a paraphrase or quote from the article. The commentary follows.

Paragraph 1:
What is the point of the sex offender registry?

  • The author starts with a good question. But, she answers it by saying she uses it to weigh safety. The registry has done nothing to increase public safety. Sexual assault and abuse followed the same trends before and after it was implemented. People on the registry are statistically unlikely to re-offend and 95% of new cases are from people who have never been on a registry.
  • She talks about the “offenders living among us.” That statement assumes that people who have committed a crime in the past are currently offending. It keeps people locked into their worst moment and doesn’t allow for any healing, growth or other rehabilitation. It increases hopelessness which could actually lead to decreased safety.
  • “To weigh the safety of those around me”: the truth is that most crimes with a sexual component are committed by trusted family and friends that the author would never suspect. The registry does nothing to help in that regard. Her family is at risk because as a society we would prefer to create a subclass of monsters than deal with underlying issues that would lead to greater prevention.

Paragraph 2:
The individuals we let into our lives, not the stranger in the park.

  • She’s right on this part. The implication though is that the registry will help her decide who to let into her life. However, the registry is filled with people who have long ago dealt with any underlying issues, while the population at large is filled with people who will statistically cause her and her family greater harm. 95% of new sex crimes are committed by someone who is not on the registry.

Paragraph 3:
Point of registry was to let people know if a person poses a risk and to enable law enforcement to track and monitor yet it’s not working.

  • But, it was also based on the assumption that 80% of people would recidivate, was originally intended for law enforcement only and was put in place before everyone was on the internet. Instead, it has created a system that has in essence placed entire families on a public shaming list, has hurt families, enabled dangerous vigilantes and not made the public one bit safer.

Paragraph 4:
Connecticut isn’t risk-based, it’s offense-based, but other states are risk-based. “The public is not safer if the individuals most at risk of offending are not even on the registry.”

  • There are a few points in this paragraph. With regard to other states: that’s true. However, implementation of assessing risk isn’t standardized and in some states, it’s actually worse when the state comments on someone’s risk level, yet they’ve gotten it very wrong. The experience of other states shows us that utilizing people who are not clinically qualified and assessment tools that are not validated can lead to more harm and inaccurate determinations. In addition, assessment tools are often overridden by members of sex offense review boards based on political factors that are not related to risk at all.
  • Regarding public safety
    1. It’s true that individuals most at risk of offending aren’t on the registry, but for a different reason than the author assumes. It’s because those most at risk of offending have yet to offend.
    2. If someone is considered risky and dangerous, placing them on a public list only serves to make them riskier. The list creates shame, isolation and ultimately a sense of hopelessness that can lead people to avoid getting the help they need and lead to a sense of desperation. A public health approach to sexual violence, rather than a punitive one that perpetuates the cycle of harm is a better way to address this important problem.

Paragraph 5:

  • The list has grown too large. True
  • No distinction based on risk to offend. True
  • No oversight, only address quarterly verification. Somewhat true. However, people on the registry are required to report every email address they use and every change of physical address. They could be subject to an in-person address verification at any time. They must follow notification and any restriction laws that vary from state to state whenever they travel. They’re also subject to International Megan’s Law, meaning that our Federal Government notifies the visiting country that the person committed a sexual offense, putting our citizens in potential harm’s way should they choose to travel.
  • Again, the author refers to “sex offenders,” rather than “people who have previously committed a sex offense.” People-first language makes a difference when we’re talking about humans.
  • The author gives the impression that law enforcement isn’t following up when people fail to register. That’s not true. In fact, we’ve heard stories of individuals who have mailed in their notification letter and then were notified they were out of compliance anyway. Individuals go through great lengths to ensure that they are in compliance. Many are facing barriers to compliance, such as homelessness and poverty conditions which are often collateral consequences of being on the registry. Those who can’t comply, risk the criminal charge of “failure to register,” which while a technical violation, is a felony.

Paragraph 6-first part: Multiple instances in recent years to illustrate how a lack of risk-based registry allowed dangerous offenders to go unsupervised and re-offend.

  • The author is confusing registries with probation and parole, which include a community supervision component. The registry is not intended as supervision or considered part of punishment. By having a registry, as a society, we’ve decided to say, “hey watch out for this person who committed an offense in the past because even though the scientific evidence would say they’re not likely to re-offend, we’ve decided to brand them with today’s equivalent of a Scarlet Letter.” A registry, even a risk-based one, will not prevent recidivism, in fact, studies suggest that registries create the very conditions that cause it.

Multiple instances? Are there any examples? There may be a few extreme examples of individuals who have re-offended, there always will be. The registry is only effective at keeping track of those individuals who comply with the laws. It is not an effective tool for those people who because of an untreated or aggravated mental health problem might look for ways to be out of compliance. A person who is likely to commit a heinous crime will do it regardless and no registry will serve as a deterrent.

Paragraph 6-second part: Registries contradict best practices and actually hurt public safety.

  • The author’s statement is exactly the point. Registries, whether offense or risk-based can hurt individuals, families and entire communities. People don’t come forward when a family member has caused harm because they know the family will be torn apart and destroyed by the criminal justice system and the registry. So, many suffer in silence. Registrants are unable to find employment, they’re unable to find housing, they’re ostracized from religious communities even when they’re looking for a place to go to heal. In some communities, they’re prevented from going to libraries and other public spaces. By creating a sub-class, people get a sense of hopelessness – which is a perfect environment for enabling crime.

Paragraph 7: Make it victim-centered and improve public safety. Needs of offenders must be balanced with victims’ rights and concerns. “Punishment should be applied in a cost-effective manner” with response being proportionate to criminal behavior.

  • The person harmed should have no say in registry-related matters. The person harmed should be able to give testimony regarding the harm done. In fact, many people who have been victims of sexual assault have claimed they have been hurt further by the criminal justice system. They didn’t find permanent healing or see major changes in their life after seeing the person who harmed them punished. What they really wanted was an acknowledgment that the person harmed them, a sincere apology and to know that person wouldn’t harm someone else. That can happen through a guided restorative justice process, but our adversarial criminal justice system keeps those who harmed from admitting what they’ve done, effectively blocking real accountability and restoration of community.
  • In our current system, the registry is not supposed to be the punishment. The Supreme Court said so. It’s a civil, not a punitive tool. The voices of those who have been harmed are very important in many contexts, however, this is not one of them. Evidence indicates that risk of re-offense and public safety is not related to the nature of the crime or the victim experience.  The author refers to it as punishment and, while it’s technically not punishment, she’s right to do so. Because, even though the Supreme Court has said it’s not punishment, ask anyone who has been forced to register and they will tell you of the social death that they’ve faced.

Paragraph 8: Keep the registry for high-risk offenders.

  • For reasons stated above,  we have seen that putting anybody on a list does nothing for public safety.

Paragraph 9: Need to implement the findings of the studies. The study is a few years old.

  • True, but how we implement the study is very important. The proposed bill would give relief to some. However, it would leave many behind based solely on the date of their conviction, not on their risk. Even worse, the state will be going from making a statement that the registry doesn’t indicate risk to “hey, if someone’s on the public list, they’re dangerous.” But, most individuals who are currently on the list won’t have an opportunity to petition to be assessed or moved to the law enforcement registry for many years. So, for a decade, we’ll have people who would otherwise have been classified as low risk on a list that purports to be only high-risk individuals. Some of them will be those who were placed on the registry retroactively, with convictions dating back to the ‘80s and ‘90s, who fall just above the poverty line and cannot afford to hire a lawyer to help with a petition for removal. Others will be those who failed to register as a result of homelessness or unexpected life circumstance and became disqualified from petitioning. Still others may be those disqualified from petitioning due to an unintended technical violation of one of the vague and onerous conditions of sex-offender specific probation. Policymakers are promoting the proposed bill as a risk-based registry. While it is a move towards a risk-based system, claiming that it is one is extremely misleading to the public and has the potential to undermine the intent of the bill.

Paragraph 10: “Let’s make our registry the tool it was intended to be and make communities safer.”

  • Let’s dismantle the whole registry and stop playing around with a tool that does more harm than good. Politicians, advocates and others understand the issues in private, but they’re afraid. They’re afraid of doing the right thing because the media will accuse them of being soft on crime. They’re afraid of losing elections and popular support. But, it’s past time for us to have real discussion. It’s very important to hold people accountable when they cause harm and we can’t minimize the pain of those who are harmed. Often, people who have caused harm were harmed themselves. We need to look at each other as brothers and sisters and figure out how to heal as a society. We must stop choosing punishment over prevention and survivor services when it comes to time, effort and financial resources. We need to bring the discussions of abuse and assault into the open while showing everyone a path forward toward healing. Harm piled upon harm only perpetuates a cycle of abuse and pain, rather than restoring all those involved for safer and healthier communities.

 

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