Registering as a sex offender automatically imposes scores of restrictions on convicts' lives, which is essentially why most people favor them. Restrictions barring sex offenders from living within a certain distance of schools or playgrounds might make communities feel safer, and, as I've found in my own experience, the registry can provide some solace for abuse survivors and their families. But the strings attached to sex offender registration are -- like drug laws -- numerous, generally non-specific and replete with lengthy, often unfit penalties.
What I mean to say is: sex offenders frequently face mandatory minimums when they don't comply with any one of the innumerable restrictions placed on their lives, and mandatory minimums are something of which we should be skeptical.
Here's an example to illustrate why: Joshua Gravens, a social justice scholar from Dallas, studies the impact of placing children on sex offender registries, the ramifications of which he understands firsthand. When he was 12, Gravens -- who was raped by three high school students when he was a young boy and didn't tell anyone -- touched his younger sister's vagina two times. As Lenore Skenazy at Reason tells it, then-adolescent Gravens quickly found himself in the hands of the criminal justice system, after his sister told their mother what happened and he told the truth:
Their mom called a counseling service for advice. The counsellor said Josh's mother was required to report his crime to the authorities and the next day, he was arrested. He spent the next four years in juvenile prison: the Texas Youth Commission, as it is officially called. The charge was “aggravated sexual assault,” because any sex offense against a person under age 14 is automatically “aggravated.” He got out at age 16 and was put on the sex offender registry, which, in Dallas, requires him to report in person to the authorities once a year, as well as anytime anything in his life changes.
Well, 27-year-old Gravens's life did change recently -- he, his wife and their children moved into a new home -- which means he had to visit the registry to report the change within a week of it happening. Skenazy accompanied Gravens to the registry when he went to notify officials, but when they arrived, the unforeseen happened:
Just as the detective in the nondescript office finished typing this information into the system and Josh and I were about to go to lunch, a man with a beard and a badge strode up and said, “Joshua Gravens?”
“You are under arrest for not alerting the authorities to your new address.” He whipped out handcuffs. “Put your hands behind your back.”
As the man tightened the cuffs, Josh calmly explained he was registering his new address that very minute.
“The law says you you have to register the fact you are going to move seven days before the move, too.”
That is what the law says, and for violating it, Gravens now faces a minimum sentence of two to five years in prison for committing a sex crime. Registry transgressions are considered sex crimes regardless of the situation, making it "as if Gravens just touched an 8-year-old's vagina again." Of course, that isn't what happened, because Gravens was charged with reporting his new address 13 days late. To be frank, I think it does something to diminish the gravity of actual sexual offenses -- of actually molesting an 8-year-old -- to say that people who inadvertently fail to comply with excessive regulation deserve to be punished the same.
Does that mean we should do away with the sex offender registry and all the restrictions it imposes? Absolutely not. Actual sex crimes are grievous, often truly heinous, and the law should respond to them as such. But the law should also respond to sexual offenses in a way that is nuanced and that fits the crime, not in a way that generalizes across abuses and lumps discrete actions into one giant criminal category. The law should be reformed when it doesn't seem to be working (which, studies show, it doesn't); considering reform doesn't mean "going soft on sex offenders," of which so many people and politicians are afraid. Re-thinking mandatory minimums for any crime doesn't preclude the possibility of serious punishment. It just offers an opportunity to afford everyone more justice.