Politics & Prejudices
Of sex and injustice
Why the Michigan Sex Offender List needs to be abolished as soon as possible.
Published: November 24, 2010
Some years ago, I talked to a heartbroken woman who lived near the Ohio border. Her daughter, who was younger than 16, the legal age of consent in Michigan, had been willingly having sex with her 17-year-old boyfriend, an honor student. The kids wouldn't stop doing it, surprise, surprise, and the mom then took them to court.
When the boy, who was hoping for scholarships and acceptance at an Ivy League school, learned that he was going to end up on the Michigan Sex Offender Registry, he felt that his life was ruined. Soon after, he drove his car into the path of an oncoming tractor-trailer. He left no note, and his death technically could have been an accident, but everyone knew it wasn't.
Welcome to our wonderful world of stigma.
It's called the Michigan Sex Offender List, and is a terrible thing that needs to be abolished — as soon as possible. It was born of a half-baked noble idea that was rushed into law in Lansing and turned into something dangerously bad. This all started in 1994, when Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl, was brutally raped and murdered. The scum who did it was a convicted felon who had served time for other sex crimes, and who lived across the street. Megan's parents had no idea of his background.
A national outcry led to Congress requiring persons convicted of sex crimes against children to notify law enforcement of any future change of address or employment, in some cases, for the rest of their lives. That itself ought to make us a bit uneasy; it sounds like something that would happen in a place like the Soviet Union, where prisoners often weren't allowed to leave Siberia even after they did their time. However, given the nature of sex criminals, and our legitimate interest in protecting children, this action might conceivably be justifiable in the interests of society.
What happened next, however, wasn't. New Jersey passed something known as "Megan's Law," which required the state to maintain a database listing all released sex offenders — and to notify communities whenever an offender moved into the neighborhood. Supposedly, that's so parents can keep little Billy away from the pervert's house. In fact, that sounds like a sure-fire way to make it impossible for these folks ever to rehabilitate themselves, and maybe even an open invitation to vigilante action. (Little Susie's late coming home from school? Let's string up the neighborhood pervs!)
Michigan then did something even worse. We created a registry listing people convicted of all sorts of "sex" crimes, showing people's driver's license pictures, telling where people live and indicating something about the severity of their crimes through a vague and confusing system of numbered categories.
Investigations have shown that the site is frequently out of date and lists wrong addresses. Worse, serial child rapists are there next to people who — when they were 16 — had sex with their eager and willing 15-year-old girlfriend or boyfriend. You can even get on the sex offender registry for indecent exposure, meaning it may well contain some drunken frat boys arrested for urinating in the South Quad.
To add to the monstrosity of this, once you get on the list, you stay on for at least 10 years, sometimes for life. This got new attention earlier this month, after it was revealed that a 14-year-old girl in Wayne County's Huron Township had sex with an 18-year-old classmate. Neither knew how old the other was.
Initially, both said it was not only consensual, the girl approached him. Then, however, the child had second thoughts and claimed she was raped. Classmates made fun of her, and she killed herself. Had she lived, the boy would have ended up on the offender list even if she had stuck to her story that she seduced him.
He also would have gone to jail. But since the only witness is now dead, he's home free. Which is a nutty system. But for those whose partners haven't died — how is somebody supposed to get a job and turn their lives around when they are on that list?
I just called it up and plugged in my fairly upper-middle-class ZIP code. There was one name in my neighborhood, but when I clicked on his info to see what he had been convicted of, I got knocked off the registry.
The Michigan State Police specifically say they won't verify for the accuracy of the registry's information. Nor does it do any good in preventing crime. Two years ago, a study of a similar New Jersey law found that the registry had no effect on reducing sexual offenses, re-offenses or the number of victims. What the law did do was cost the state a lot of money.
Obviously, this turkey should be repealed, and replaced with a law that requires authorities to keep close tabs on dangerous sexual predators, or, if it isn't politically possible to entirely get rid of a sex offender list, have it only for convicted child molesters.
Actually, if somebody is that dangerous, they probably shouldn't be out on the street. We need, as penal experts now say, to lock up the people we are legitimately afraid of, not the ones we are mad at. I wouldn't have any problem with stiffer penalties for dangerous sex criminals, especially if the Legislature wanted to save us millions by releasing a lot of nonviolent criminals.
Incidentally, I have a selfish interest in abolishing the sex offender registry; I might easily have been on it. Not because of anything I did when I was in high school; I was far too socially inept, and the only woman I now want is older than the president.
But I do take my dog to public woods, and once or twice, at night, after a day of coffee drinking, I have had to join him in peeing on trees. All things considered, I would rather not have my driver's license picture on the registry. It makes my face look fat.
Women who need real justice: Last week I saw former Gov. William Milliken, a man who has devoted his life to justice. I was curious to know what he was thinking about the new administration. I found, however, that he was much more focused on the present — specifically, on a favorite cause of his: Unjustly imprisoned women in Michigan prisons. For years, he has supported the Michigan Women's Justice and Clemency Project.
He and Carol Jacobsen, a University of Michigan professor who directs the project, have petitioned Gov. Jennifer Granholm to commute the sentences of dozens of battered women. I've looked at their case files. Most probably never should have been in prison at all; they were the victims of bad lawyers and insensitive judges.
Some killed boyfriends and husbands who were attacking them or their children. Some were dragged along on crime sprees by criminal lovers, more or less against their will. Others have been held far past any reasonable time they should have been behind bars.
Jennifer Granholm leaves office in five weeks; she can never run again, and has nothing to fear politically. She hasn't left much in the way of progressive legacy over the last eight years. Letting these poor women go would be a golden opportunity to do the right thing and correct an injustice.
Let's hope that in our lock-'em-up-obsessed world, the governor at last finds the courage to do the right thing.
> Email Jack Lessenberry