The unintended victims of sexual crime hysteria
By Sandy . . . It is seldom that the morning newsfeed offers not two but three pieces dealing with the same topic, a topic that piques my interest and warrants some consideration.
Some states structure their sexual offender registry so that a technical violation is punishable by a jail or prison sentence and in some states is considered a new sexual offense. This may be tied in with a violation of sexual offense probation. Granted, when on probation or parole, restrictions are more rigid and expectations of autonomy are fewer, but the question remains: Is incarcerating a person for a year or longer the best solution for a technical violation that involves no new attempt at committing a crime against a person?
In Cumberland County, Tennessee, a 79-year-old man, John, was given a year’s sentence for “. . . technical violations of the sex offender registry law . . .” The media source does not identify what the technical violations were. They could be anything from accidentally being a digit off in a submitted telephone number to moving without registering the new address. But even if it were the later, he didn’t go far; law enforcement apparently had no trouble finding him. At the time of this sentencing, John had already been in jail for three months for a probation violation, which, as best as I can decipher the verbiage, was for the same offense. Tennessee imposes lifetime community supervision—probation– on a significant number of registrants, and failure to comply with registry requirements can be charged as a probation violation. Further investigation shows that John’s one sexual offense conviction was in 2015 for possession of illegal images.
A case in Albany, New York, raises even more concerns. Jason, age 43, the registrant in this case, has been sentenced to 28 months imprisonment for “. . . failing to update his sex offender registration information.” When released, he will serve five years of post-release supervision. His one prior conviction was in 2011 for receiving child pornography—different language meaning essentially the same as the Tennessee case, possession of illegal images consisting of child pornography. This new conviction is for failing to update his residency address on the sexual offender registry. According to the media source, in New York this conviction, for a registrant, is a new crime as it is in violation of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act.
Finally, a 43-year-old Coldwater, Michigan man has been sentenced to from 17 months to ten years for parole violations and from 17 months to four years for not complying with the sexual offender registry. Travis was given an additional sentence, to run concurrently, of 16 months to two years for not complying with reporting duties. His sexual offense conviction was in 2020 for 2nd degree criminal sexual contact.
NARSOL has frequently said that we are not attorneys and we do not give legal advice. There is one bit of legal advice, however, that we have been known to give: If it’s the law, obey it. If you are on probation, your responsibility is to follow the terms of your probation. If you are on the registry, you are responsible for knowing the registry requirements for your state and following them. If you believe they are excessive—such as counter-productive residency restrictions—or illegal—such as sheriffs requiring Halloween yard signs without legal authority—beg or borrow if needed and find an attorney.
When individuals do not follow supervision requirements or registration stipulations, they must expect consequences. But shouldn’t the consequences fall to the person who is in violation rather than to the state, its taxpayers, and the innocent?
Jason and Travis are mid-forties in age. With any luck, they were working; they were earning, supporting at least themselves and quite possibly families. They were renting or buying, spending, contributing to the economy. They were paying taxes. And now? How much does it cost to incarcerate a man for a month? A year? Ten years? Will their families need public assistance now? Lose their homes? How much more is lost over and above their wages and all that a wage-earner contributes?
And what of John? He is 79 years old. In addition to the base cost of incarcerating him for a year, what are his medical needs? Is there an elderly wife at home who can manage—or not—without him?
Whatever lessons these incarceration terms are intended to teach, would it not be reasonable to try a few months instead of a year, two years, possibly ten years? John’s criminal record shows that this is his third conviction for registry and supervision infractions, and were it not for his age, a year’s sentence might be appropriate. Perhaps the question in his situation is will the cost of his incarceration be offset by what he learns in a year behind bars.
The criminal records of both Jason and Travis indicate that these convictions for parole/registration violations (Travis) and failing to update registration information (Jason) are the very first of the sort that either of them have accrued. Would not a few months in the county jail be a reasonable and much more cost-effective attempt at correction? A second, more subtle concern that must be raised in connection with registration violations is this: Failing to comply with registry requirements is an offense applicable to no category of crime except those that trigger an obligation to register. This is an often-overlooked fact among the plethora of discriminations that make up criminal registries.
Is it not time to give these issues some serious thought?