CADILLAC — A cursory glance at the Michigan Sex Offender Registry may reveal that someone who’s been convicted of a sex crime lives near you.
Advocates for reforming the registry say this publicly available information not only doesn’t make communities safer, it actually has the potential to make them more dangerous.
Those on the other side of the debate say the registry is a valuable tool that gives people the information they need to be aware of their surroundings and cognizant of potential threats.
The Michigan Sex Offender Registration Act was passed in 1994 and has undergone a number of modifications and additions over the years, including a revision in 1996 that required certain information about offenders to be made public. Under the current law, registrants are required to provide up-to-date information on where they live, where they work, their email and social media accounts, as well as a picture of themselves, which is posted online for the public to see. Depending on the severity of the crime, some offenders can eventually be removed from the registry while others have to remain on it for life.
Lt. Derrick Carroll, public information officer with the Michigan State Police Seventh District, said the point of the registry isn’t to harass, alienate or drive out people who are on it.
“It’s not meant for people to panic,‘ Carroll said. “We get calls to the post from people who tell us that someone moved into their neighborhood that’s on the registry and they want to know what to do. We tell them to just be calm but aware.‘
Carroll said knowing that someone in the neighborhood has a history of criminal sexual conduct — and knowing what they’ve been convicted of — may be very informative, especially for those with children.
“It might be a red flag that you don’t want your child at that residence,‘ Carroll said. “It’s really a judgment call for a parent but it’s a discussion you probably want to have.‘
Teaching a toddler the value of having stranger danger can be a little awkward, Carroll said, but those discussions can be framed around the realities of where you live and who to avoid.
It starts with talking about stranger danger, then what body parts are not OK for people to touch, and so on, Carroll said.
“Everyone is different,‘ Carroll said. “It depends on what you think they’re capable of comprehending.‘
While protecting kids is a goal that everyone can get behind, those critical of the registry don’t think the benefits it provides outweigh its impact on those affected by it.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel recently issued a legal brief that concluded the registry is harmful overall and should be revised by the legislature.
The Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has argued the same position and currently is trying to convince lawmakers to replace “Michigan’s bloated and ineffective registry with a law that is grounded in evidence-based research and actually works to keep Michigan’s families safe.‘
In her published opinion, Nessel said the registry is a form of ongoing “public shaming‘ that prevents offenders from re-assimilating into society, thereby increasing their chances of re-offending. She points out that no other crime carries a requirement of registration, including murder.
Nessel also is critical of the registry’s relevance, considering how few instances of criminal sexual conduct occur involving someone who is unrelated but happens to live in the same neighborhood as a victim.
“Significantly, although 70% of all men in prison for a sex crime were men whose victim was a child, in almost all of the child-victim cases the child was the prisoner’s child or a relative,‘ Nessel wrote. “Thus, although the registry’s focus is on possible dangerousness of strangers, that scenario is rare.‘
For registrants, Nessel said geographic restrictions and in-person reporting requirements, coupled with the public aspect of the registry, make it difficult for registrants to engage in community and family life or counseling, and are “antithetical to evolving research and best practices related to recidivism, rehabilitation, and community safety.‘
Furthermore, Nessel argued that since the registry allows people to submit anonymous tips on the website, this encourages the public to “act as vigilantes‘ and opens up the possibility for classmates, work colleagues, and community members to be vindictive and retaliatory.
“These burdens appear to outweigh any conceivable public safety benefit,‘ she wrote. “... And the widespread message is that all registrants are dangerous and should be shunned (‘not in our town’) ... registrants are no longer simply shamed in the public square of one’s own community; they are now shamed in the eyes of their county, their state, their nation — and in our global economy, the world.‘
Wexford County Prosecutor Jason Elmore said while offenders cannot be removed from the registry until their term expires, the suffering inflicted on their victims is another factor that must be taken into consideration before drastic changes are made.
“... sexual offenses are among the most severe,‘ Elmore said. “Many victims carry deep and hidden scars that never expire.‘
Another criticism leveled at the registry by the ACLU and others is the amount of money it costs to maintain it.
According to the ACLU, Michigan has nearly 44,000 registrants, making it the fourth largest sex offender registry in the country, with the third highest registration rate per capita of any state.
“Operating and maintaining the verification process costs time and money,‘ Elmore said. “Routinely, MSP troopers are assigned to go around and check on verifications. If someone violates SORA requirements, it may result in additional charges being filed.‘ In the last two years, Wexford County has had 25 registry violations.
Elmore said he believes the registry is valuable, although that doesn’t necessarily mean it couldn’t be improved.
“This information is helpful to the community and law enforcement,‘ Elmore said. “Some people make bad choices that result in convictions. Some learn from their bad choices and improve the direction of their lives. Whether or not they should remain on the registry is an important issue. The law currently provides no discretion to local judges when it comes to whether one is to be registered. It is up voters to be educated on the issue and talk to their legislators. The question is not really if it is a valuable tool. The real question is as to its breadth and duration.‘
Last week, a judge in federal court heard arguments on a Michigan ACLU lawsuit that contends that certain provisions of the registry are unconstitutional, including lifetime registration requirements, loitering restrictions, reporting requirements and residency exclusions.
Depending on the judge’s eventual decision, the legislature may be forced to make revisions to the registration.