Cato Institute holds forum on the unintended consequences of sex offender registry laws

Today the Cato Institute held a forum “You may be a sex offender if …”.  The purpose of the event was to show the unintended consequences of the draconian sex offender registration laws that started with the Jacob Wetterling Act in 1994, requiring convicted sex offenders to register with local law enforcement, and Megan’s Law, in 1996, which required states to publish the information.

The Cato handout pointed out very venial offenses can result in sex offender registration.  These could include urinating in public, visiting prostitutes (in some states), and especially cell phone sexting by teenagers – of images of themselves.

Walter Olson, senior Cato Fellow, moderated.  The link for the event is here and a complete video from Cato is present there.

The first speaker was Lenore Skenazy, publicly known as founder of “Free-Range Kids” and leading the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She began her narrative with a tale of a 12 year old boy put in juvenile prison for a touching incident with a sister at home.  He was compelled in treatment to confess to acts he hadn’t committed, and forced to register for years.

She also discussed the case of Zach Anderson, who at 17 had sex with a 14 year old girl who admitted she had lied about her age online.  Although his sentence was reduced, it will still severely limit his young adult life and employment (no Internet content).  The original judge believed that his Internet use had been gratuitous, and that he should have been responsible for knowing the real age of the girl.

Skenazy tried an experiment, handing out 3×5 cards to the audience (rather like English class in high school for a pop quiz) and asking yes or no, had you ever committed one of a long list of possible offenses that could result in mandatory registration.  The final count was 28 to 10, yes.

Dara Lind from Vox Media also spoke, emphasizing the public shaming part of the registry enforcement. Crime is controlled by punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation, which is what the mandatory registration is supposed to accomplish. She made a comparison to the “rotten apples” banning of films associated with shamed actors or media executives in the recent sexual harassment scandals and the #MeToo movement.

But it’s apparent that the “incapacitation” is enforced by the community rather than by the state per se.

I asked a question from the audience about the possibility of being framed for illegal content, especially possessing child pornography, by attacks from others.  This could come through phishing, malware (similar to ransomware, and this has happened a few times), or possibly direct hacking of websites owned by a business or person. This could be a technique of a terrorist group or of a foreign enemy (compare to North Korea’s hack of Sony in 2014).  I mentioned that possession of child pornography has been mentioned as an “absolute liability offense”, at least in conjunction with a case in Arizona back in 2006.  Mr. Olson said that the idea of “mens rea” (“I didn’t mean too”) is better understood in the courts with respect to the Internet now than it was a decade ago, when Internet use might have been seen as more gratuitously motivated.  (Does that shift “rebuttable presumption” back to innocence?”) Skenazy said that the idea could be quite scary especially for the less educated users and mentioned a case where someone with autism was convicted of such possession when the person clearly did not understand the offense.

There was lunch upstairs afterward.  During the luncheon, a Washington Blade reporter mentioned that gay placement on sex offender registries had occurred when sodomy laws were on the books, until Lawrence v. Texas in 2003;  a few men had trouble getting their names removed when sodomy laws were ruled unconstitutional.  It was also mentioned that in Florida, police have the option of placing red signs on the residences of sex offenders, a literal scarlet letter.

The discussion noted that California had been the first state with mandatory sex offender registries, and that men of color are proportionally more likely to be on registries than white men or any females.

See the Pingback reference on the July 19, 2016 on my own personal brush with this issue back in 2005 when I was working as a substitute teacher.  Unlikely coincidences created the problem, but it seemed quite serious at the time.  There is a lot of detail there to look at.

(Posted: Thursday, February 8, 2018 at 9:30 PM EST)

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