Michael Madison – a convicted sex offender – is facing murder charges in the deaths of three Cleveland women. He is currently out on a $6 million bond, with a pre-trial hearing set for next week on six charges of aggravated murder. In 2002, Madison was sentenced to four years in prison for attempted rape.
Following high profile cases such as these, legislators and citizens often push to have tougher sex offender laws – along with broader public sex offender registries. However, while sex offender registries may serve an important public safety function, they also create serious injustices. Placing your name on the sex crimes registry can create life long stigmas for those on the list, affecting where they can live, what universities they can attend and even their ability to obtain employment. In some situations, these registries have been found to violate citizens’ constitutional rights.
The Federal Sex Crime Registry/ The Adam Walsh Act
In 2006 congress passed the Adam Walsh Act (also known as the Sex Offender and Notification Act (SORNA)). SORNA is a federal law requiring all sex offenders place their name on a public online registry. SORNA divides all offenders into three tiers, with Tier III being the most violent offenders. States are given $600,000 in grant money if their sex offender laws comply with SORNA.
Currently 16 states comply with the SORNA.
The Massachusetts Sex Crime Registry
Massachusetts has its own version of the Sex Crimes Registry. Pursuant to Massachusetts’s law, all convicted sex offenders must place their names on the registry. Similar to federal law, Massachusetts divides sex offenders into 3 categories, with Level 3 the designation given the most serious offenders. Until a few weeks ago, Massachusetts only made public the names of level 3 offenders. However, a recent budget amendment just passed making the names of Level 2 offenders publicly available online. The amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Arciero, is seeking to making the names of Level 1 sex offenders public as well. While supporters point to issues of safety in support of the online registry, sex offender registries have a history of unintended consequences and creating long lasting difficulties for those required to list their names.
The Problem with Sex Crime Registries
All persons convicted of sex crimes must place their names on the registry. This includes both violent child predators and those convicted of more innocuous crimes such as public urination. While most people would agree that a violent sexual predator such as Michael Madison should have his name listed, what about a teen convicted of sexting, or a high school senior convicted of statutory rape for having sex with his minor girlfriend? Statistics show that juveniles comprise about a quarter of all registered sex offenders. They are frequently listed as the result of non-dangerous offenses such as public urination or consensual sex between two minors.
Further, with the recent explosion of smart-phone technology, many teens find themselves on the registry for sexting – sending explicit photos of themselves via text to another. In many states, including Massachusetts, sexting may be prosecuted as producing or distributing child pornography, a felony. Along with jail time, a conviction may mean placing your name on the registry for 20 years.
Registering as a sex offender carries with it significant consequences including limiting where you live, denying your ability to obtain certain government loans and even affecting the colleges you may attend. If a potential employer finds your name on the list, you may be denied a job.
Sex offender registries are well-intentioned and necessary for the most violent sexual offenders. However, the overly broad listing requirements may end up doing more harm then good for non-violent offenders who can’t escape the stigma of being labeled a “sex offender.”