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Sex Offender Registry: First, Do No Harm


For months, I’ve been corresponding with a lady named Virginia Hernandez, whose twenty-three year old son Elio is on Michigan’s Sex Offender Registry. He was accused of accosting a minor for immoral purposes, and pled guilty on the advice of his court-appointed counsel. His mom believes he is innocent, and was pressured into a plea. She says his attorney told him that he was poor, uneducated, and black, and a jury would never believe him.

I have no idea whether this is true, though I know such things do go on in our court system. I also don’t know whether he was guilty, though according to the documents I examined. nobody alleged he actually committed a physical act.

What I do know is that creating a decent and normal life for himself has been made well-nigh impossible by being on the list.

There are few enough jobs as it is in the Detroit area, and being on the sex offender list doesn’t make getting one any easier.

This summer, Elio’s frustrated mom moved the whole family from Macomb County to the Grand Rapids area, where things started to look up. Elio and his brothers did find jobs. They were living in a hotel, but working towards permanent housing.

But then, they hit a Catch-22. Those on the sex offender list are required to register when they move. Elio apparently tried to do that, but was told he could not register until he had a permanent address. That meant he had to return to Macomb County to meet with his probation officer. But when he did, he was arrested for failure to register in Kent County, His mom had to take a bus to Mount Clemens last week to bail him out. They have another court appearance this week. Helen Chapman, a family friend, told me:

“Here is a young man who was trying to do the right thing. And what did he get for it? It seems as if the system was never meant to give people freedom, but to force them to fail.”

According to the latest figures I could find, there are more than forty-seven thousand Michiganders on the sex offender list. Recently,  J.J. Prescott from the University of Michigan law school, and Jonah Rockoff  from Columbia published a massive national study on whether sex offender registration laws affect behavior.

Their results were stunning. The data indicates that when states keep these lists for the police, but don’t notify the public, they do seem to have a deterrent effect. But not when they include public notification requirements -- as they do in Michigan. The researchers found that making the identities of sex offenders public may actually weaken public safety by making them more likely to commit new crimes. Treating them as automatic pariahs almost seems to guarantee more bad behavior.

If we are determined to treat people as criminals, they are apt to fulfill our expectations, which is something you learn in elementary psychology classes. Now, I am no psychologist.

But it seems clear to me from this study, and Elio’s story, that Michigan’s sex offender registry may not be doing us much good, and is doing some people a whole lot of harm.

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