Sunday, September 30, 2007

Maine Court puts needed halt on sex offender hysteria


Internet registries can punish sex offenders but may do little to protect children.


Pillory was the name of a punishment device used in Colonial times. Usually made from two hinged boards with holes cut for the head and hands, this technical upgrade to the stocks was used to expose convicts to public scorn.

In his novel, "The Scarlet Letter," Nathaniel Hawthorne described one of the machines, and said, "There can be no outrage, methinks ... more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame."

In our times, "pillory" has become a verb meaning "to lay open to ridicule, public shame and abuse." It is a word that could be used to describe what happens to a person whose name and photograph appears on an Internet sex offender registry.

In an important ruling this week, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court opened Maine's sex offender registry law to legal challenge. This opinion should force the public and all levels of government to reconsider the effectiveness of online registries as a weapon against sexual violence.

COURT'S RULING

The unanimous court found that restrictions on where a sex offender can live and work flow from public notification. That makes the registry a form of punishment that should be imposed selectively as part of a criminal sentence, and not applied indiscriminately through civil law.

The Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee will meet next month to review the law in light of the court's opinion. The lawmakers should realize what two of the judges found: Amendments to the Sex Offender Registry and Notification Act made over the last seven years have turned a reasonable law- enforcement tool into a vindictive weapon against one class of criminal.

Lawmakers should especially reconsider their decision to make the mandatory registration retroactive, applying it in some cases to people who have lived quiet, law-abiding lives for years since completing their sentences.

This is not about being nice to sex offenders or ignoring the often-lifelong damage caused by their crimes. It is about justice and public safety.

Maine's online registry, and others like it in almost every state, does little to protect children and others from abuse because it can drive offenders underground, making them harder to track. Most sex crimes against children are committed within households, and a public registry does not provide information that would protect many of those victims. In fact, it could give their parents a false sense of security.

The main purpose of the online registries appears to be punitive. While the criminal justice system imposes punishment, the state should also focus attention on education and other areas that could prevent crime.

Maine passed its notification law in 1995. At that time, it required people convicted of gross sexual assault when the victim was under the age of 16 to register as part of their sentence. By law, the information was given to "certain police agencies and to members of the public who the department determines appropriate to ensure public safety."

LAW AMENDED

Subsequent amendments to the law have been driven by federal programs that tie changes to the registry to access to federal crime-fighting dollars.

In 2001, the law was made retroactive for people sentenced for crimes committed as far back as 1992. Registrants had to report every 90 days to a local police station for fingerprinting.

A 2003 amendment put the information online, including the registrant's address, place of employment and photograph. In 2005, the registry was made retroactive to crimes committed as far back as 1982.

Stephen Marshall, a deranged Nova Scotia man, used the state's Web site to target the two Maine registrants he murdered on Easter Sunday 2006.

Shortly after those killings, a man known in court papers as "John Doe" challenged his order to register.

He had been convicted of unlawful sexual contact with a 12- year-old relative more than 20 years earlier, and had no subsequent sexual offenses. Doe said his wife would leave him to protect her children if his name and address appeared on the registry. He was also afraid he would lose his job and his neighbors would force him to move away.

All of this would be imposed without any evidence other than his conviction that he would pose a threat to another child.

His case was dismissed because a pair of court decisions, one from the U.S. Supreme Court and one from Maine's, appeared to have settled the issue in favor of the registry.

But in its ruling this week, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said the registration law had been so drastically changed through its amendments, it has become something entirely different. The opinion sends the Doe case back to the Superior Court.

LAWMAKER'S TASK

In the meantime, lawmakers should consider what the registry has become over the last 12 years. Rogues' galleries on the Internet perpetuate myths about sex abuse, and do little to protect victims from the real dangers.

If public notification is a form of punishment it should be viewed that way and made part of a sentence.

Lawmakers should also consider if it isn't a type of punishment, like the pillory, that we put aside long ago.


You really don't have to go far beyond the comments on this article to understand that the general populace sees through the pretense that these laws aren't additional punishments -- and supports the pretense. However, it's highly likely that these very same folks will be the ones squealing the loudest when the denial of liberty and privacy to others that they supported gets applied to them. And there are so many agendas out there, it will.

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