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Michigan's unfair sex offender list

Apr 7, 2015

We like to say we are against unfair discrimination against anyone, but that isn’t true. There’s one group who we legally and happily treat as less-than-human pariahs: convicted sex offenders who have done their punishment and served their time.

We go on punishing them by putting them on an odious sex offender registry that not only has the effect of branding a scarlet letter on their foreheads, but punishes their family members, neighbors and even people they don’t know, by possibly affecting property values, since their homes go on the sex offender list and stay there, as they do, often for life.

We don’t force convicted murderers to spend the rest of their lives paying for their crime, nor do we publicly brand them as criminals. But we do this to people who were convicted of even minor sex offenses. I have always felt that the entire concept of a public sex offender list was not only deeply wrong and unfair, but probably unconstitutional.

Well, the courts are finally taking notice. Last month, as Michigan Radio’s Steve Carmody reported, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a North Carolina sex offender should have a chance to challenge a requirement that he wear a GPS monitoring bracelet for the rest of his life.

Michigan currently has five thousand people required to wear such monitors. What’s more, we make them pay to cover the cost of the monitoring.

If that sounds like something out of Stalin’s Russia, it’s because it is. Yesterday, however, U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland struck down major portions of Michigan’s sex offender law itself as unconstitutional.

Portions struck down include a requirement that the former offenders stay a thousand feet away from any school, without any guidance as to where the boundaries actually are.

The judge also struck down requirements that offenders who have done their time report their email and instant messaging addresses, and notify authorities of, quote, “all telephone numbers routinely used by the individual.”  That sounds like something out of George Orwell’s 1984.  Michigan has more than forty-one thousand people on the sex offender registry.

They do include people who have sexually abused children or who have engaged in violent sexual crimes. I have no problem with the police knowing who those people are, or their being required to be in some kind of a lifetime treatment and monitoring program, if that was part of their sentence or the terms of their parole.

But a public list is an invitation to vigilante justice.

And our sex offender list also includes people who had sex with a willing underage person, who they have since married and had children with. It includes the home of a friend of mine whose son never touched anyone, but who was convicted of possessing child pornography years ago, served his time, and lives with his parents because, surprise surprise, he’s having a hard time getting a job.

After all, he and his family home are on that list for all to see.

The Michigan ACLU, defenders of the Constitution always, deserve our thanks for filing the lawsuit that led to this decision. Justice needs to be fair and punishment measured and in proportion.

Hopefully this ruling will help remind us of that.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.