Thursday, March 18, 2010

Should You Have To Commit A Sex Crime To Be Labeled A Sex Offender?

The Georgia State Supreme Court recently upheld the state's right to place felons on sex offender registries even if the offense was not sexual in nature. Georgia's law exposes a common, expanded notion of what a sex offender actually is.
Under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2007, the states are required to have statutes demanding sex-offender registration for those convicted of kidnapping or falsely imprisoning minors. The Georgia court ruled that the plain meaning of “sex offender” was overridden by the state’s law.
In the case heard before the court, a then-eighteen-year-old man held a seventeen-year-old girl for a brief time during a drg deal gone bad. There was no sexual component to the crime. But as the above quoted passage shows, the state is required to treat cases like that as if they were sex crimes.

I'm certainly not going to defend the client, Jake Rainer, in this space. He clearly deserved to be punished for his crimes -- a fact he did not dispute. I'm also not going to ask if justice is being served by treating men like Mr. Rainer as sex criminals (I don't think it is). What I am going to ask is this:

Does it serve the purpose of protecting the people?

Two cases mentioned in the linked article paint a picture of an overworked, understaffed bureaucracy charged with monitoring sex offenders and failing miserably.
A registered sex offender held Jaycee Dugard captive and raped her for years in California unbeknownst to a parole officer who visited the property where the ongoing crimes were taking place. The authorities also regularly checked the home of Ohio registered sex offender Anthony Sowell. They eventually found 10 buried bodies there only after a woman accused him of rape in September.
Authorities charged with keeping tabs on sex offenders are stretched thin, and bloating the system with people whose crimes, while heinous and deserving of punishment, do not include the sexual element the offender registry was intended to record weakens the protection against real sex criminals.

Would Jake Rainer's absence from Georgia's sex offender database have affected the Dugard or Sowell cases? Probably not. But how many criminals like him are on state rolls, requiring man hours that law enforcement agencies can't afford to waste?

In Rainer's case, it looks to me like the Adam Walsh Act just has its priorities a little off. Tier III offenses are the most serious and Rainer's crime is listed there: nonparental kidnapping or imprisonment of a minor. Notice that there's nothing in there about sexual contact. But if you look at the Tier II offenses, which require a 25-year trip to the offender registry, you see the following: sex trafficking of a minor. Sexual acts with a minor age 12-15.

In other words, you are deemed a sex offender for life if you don't let a seventeen-year-old girl get out of your car. If you have sex with her twelve-year-old sister or sell her sister as a sex slave, you're on the hook for 25 years. That seems a little off. I'm sure there was a good reason, probably anecdotal evidence, to back up this reasoning. But I think it highlights once again the law of unintended consequences.

The consequences here aren't that a non-sex offending criminal got put on the sex offender registry, it's that the law has the ability to put many people like him on it, to the detriment of those who look to the registry as a source of security.

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