Advocates for reforming laws restricting where registered sex offenders can live, and for challenging sex offender registries, have vowed to continue the fight despite facing roadblocks, which organizers admit make it difficult to eliminate the discriminatory treatment that many sex offenders face due to the nature of their convictions.
Victims’ rights advocates and prosecutors vigorously oppose any changes to statutes related to sex offenders, and reformers concede there has been little progress. Despite the bleak outlook, though, the number of advocacy groups that favor reforming punitive restrictions on sex offenders continues to grow as organizers plot new strategies to fight what some legal analysts believe are laws that sacrifice the rights of one group of citizens in order to favor the rights of others.
“I was terrified; I was hiding, hoping to stay under the radar,” admitted Larry Neely, referring to his 2003 sex offense. “Your fears are really rational. But if you don’t fight, you will lose.”
Neely’s remarks were aimed at convincing the 100 or so convicted sex offenders in attendance at the 2013 Justice for All: A Conference to Reform Sexual Offense Laws to come out of the shadows.
The conference, held at the Los Angeles International Airport between August 29 and September 1, 2013, was sponsored by Reform Sex Offender Laws (RSOL), a national group with state chapters that seeks to convince judges, lawmakers and the public that restrictive statutes and ordinances targeting sex offenders are unconstitutional and ineffective.
Since the mid-1990s, harsh and discriminatory laws have spread across the nation, prohibiting where convicted sex offenders may live, work or even walk. In addition to these modern-day forms of banishment, sex offender registries – now listing the names of more than 726,000 people nationwide – have been used to single out sex offenders for eviction, employment termination, ostracism and vigilante justice, with the latter including threats of violence, assault, arson and even murder.
“A lot of us are doing what we are supposed to do,” said Jason Shelton. After serving four years for a sex offense involving a teenager, he married, earned a college degree and tried to rebuild his life. His criminal record has prevented him from finding work, however, and he and his wife were forced to live with his mother.
“I don’t want to bother anyone else,” said Shelton. “All I want is a job.”
The fight is not a popular one. Noting that a 2003 Supreme Court decision, which upheld sex offender registries as a valid law enforcement administrative tool, has led to online sex offender registries in virtually every state, RSOL attorney Janice Bellucci ticked off a five-year list of failed legal challenges for conference attendees.
“I wish I had good news to report, but I don’t,” Bellucci admitted. “We’ve got to overturn this Supreme Court decision because it’s harming you all every day.”
Still, reform organizers pointed to minor successes as a reason for some hope. For example, in November 2012 a California appellate court struck down an Orange County law which barred sex offenders from entering public parks and beaches. And in September 2013, RSOL successfully challenged a Cypress, California law requiring registered sex offenders to post signs on their front doors on Halloween. The city responded by quickly repealing the law. In April 2014, California’s Supreme Court refused to review two lower court decisions that invalidated local ordinances barring sex offenders from parks and other public places. [See: PLN, Feb. 2015, p.28].
Victims and prosecutors defend the restrictive laws and sex offender registries as vital to the safety of the public – especially the nation’s youth.
“I find it very offensive that registered sex offenders are trying to defeat the measures we have put in place to protect children,” said Nina Salarno Ashford, a lawyer with Crime Victims United. “They created their own issues. In trying to find sympathy, they’re forgetting that somebody was assaulted, in many cases a child.”
“We recognize that there is some argument that these laws don’t work, the residency restrictions, but I think the jury is still out,” added Susan Kang Schroeder, spokeswoman for Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who spearheaded the county’s now-invalidated sex offender beach and park ban. “I think they’re good laws.”
She dismissed U.S. Department of Justice findings that the recidivism rate for sex offenders peaks at 5% within five years of release, compared to a recidivism rate of more than 60% for all other offenses.
“The pro-sex offender lobby likes to bandy about percentages, as if even 1% is acceptable,” she said.
RSOL (www.nationalrsol.org), which has 13 state affiliates, including Texas, New Mexico, Michigan, Florida, Illinois and California, has been joined by a growing number of organizations that advocate for the rights of sex offenders and their families, including Once Fallen (www.oncefallen.com); USA FAIR (Families Advocating an Intelligent Registry, www.usafair.org); SOSEN (Sex Offender Solutions and Education Network, www.sosen.org); and one of the most vocal groups, WAR (Women Against Registry, www.womenagainstregistry.org).
All of these organizations advocate on issues ranging from registries, restrictions on where sex offenders can live and false allegations of sex abuse to laws that limit what sex offenders can do on Halloween. Advocacy efforts increasingly include public education on sex offender-related topics and litigation.
The Missouri-based group WAR announced on April 17, 2015 that it was preparing two federal class-action suits to challenge laws that not only result in discrimination against sex offenders, but which adversely affect their families as well.
“Women Against Registry has begun gathering and preparing information for lawsuits with a major focus on the collateral damage we see and hear about day in and day out,” wrote WAR president Vicki Henry in an email to the Broward-Palm Beach, Florida New Times. “When you have children beaten up, harassed, ostracized, wives fired, families essentially being placed on a public ‘hit list’ in the form of a registry or sign, all because they have a loved one on the registry, it is time to push back for them as well as those who have been adjudicated, paid their debt to society, and are living a law-abiding life.”
The group is taking special aim at Florida, which many groups consider ground zero for restrictive laws against sex offenders. For example, news reports have focused on the repeated forced relocation of homeless sex offenders created by restrictive residency laws in Miami-Dade. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.30]. Of the 726,000 sex offenders on registries across the nation as of the end of 2015, according to Parents for Megan’s Law and the Crime Victims Center, over 67,000 are listed in Florida.
“The lawsuits are our way of indicating we have had enough of the punitive and unconstitutional treatment to our families and will be taking it to the courts, the federal courts,” Henry explained. “The question becomes, are ALL children important, are we as responsible citizens concerned about preserving the family structure or not? When does redemption begin? How is that accomplished when the wife has to tell her graduate that their father is not allowed to celebrate that as a family event or tell junior that his dad can’t attend his soccer game now or ever.”
Testing such restrictions is the motive behind a lawsuit now before a judge in New York City. A Bronx man, who served eight years in prison for raping his ex-wife’s niece when she lived with the family between the ages of 13 and 14, is suing for permission to help raise a son born to him and his second wife in the fall of 2012.
The plaintiff, known in court papers only as Mr. Doe to shield his identity, was permitted by the Bronx family court to have unsupervised visits with his teenaged daughter – one of six children he fathered with his first wife – until his accuser, now in her mid-20s, complained to a parole officer.
“Why should he live happy and comfortable when he took something from [me] that [I] can’t get back?” she asked, according to court papers.
The New York State parole division then issued a one-paragraph directive ordering Doe away from his new family, stating that the “victim’s perspective is always important.” He was forced to move from his family residence to a homeless shelter.
On July 15, 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Engelmeyer ordered discovery in the case, finding in a 36-page opinion and order that parole officers must face limits on their expansive powers to impose dozens of conditions on registered sex offenders.
“In addition to the power to decide whether Doe may have contact with any person under age 18, a parole officer has the authority to grant or deny permission for Doe to own a camera, computer, scanner, or cell phone; possess ‘any children’s products’ or photos of minors; rent a post office box; obtain a driver’s license; ‘rent, operate or be a passenger in any vehicle’; travel outside of New York City; visit an arcade, bowling alley, beach, or swimming pool; or have visitors at his approved residence,” Engelmeyer wrote. “There are sound reasons not to give parole officers discretion, unreviewable in a subsequent court action, over so many aspects of a parolee’s life.” The case remains pending. See: Doe v. Annucci, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:14-cv-02953-PAE; 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91861.
The district court’s ruling brought praise from Georgetown University Law Center professor Abbe Smith, who helps run the school’s Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic. She called the decision a “terrific development.”
“If you commit a crime, and you’re punished, you should be allowed to serve your debt to society and then move on,” said Smith. “[Mr. Doe] has a newborn son. I can’t imagine on what basis he could be deprived from having contact from his own child.”
Sources: The New York Times, www.nationalrsol.org, www.courthousenews.com, www.browardpalmbeach.com, http://www.parentsformeganslaw.org
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