Sexual Offender Registration - The Modern Day Scarlet Letter?

Posted By Law Offices of Robert M. Bernstein || 21-Jul-2016

Author Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of a puritanical town in the 17th century which
required that a young woman found guilty of adultery wear a scarlet “A” on her dress to shame
her for her sins. His novel addresses legality, sin and shame as a punishment for offending the
moral code of the community. The story, due to its many themes, has remained relevant today to,
perhaps surprisingly, those convicted of sexual criminal offenses.

In the current day United States, we live under the 1996 Federal law known as Megan’s
Law and its subsequent progeny. These laws were passed in an effort to reduce sexual assaults
and reduce recidivism among convicted sex offenders. These statutes require individual states
to create a registration of criminal sex offenders and provide community notification as
necessary based on the level of danger posed by the offender.

Although sex offender registration policies are very popular politically, and supported by
the public, their effectiveness in preventing sex offenses from occurring—or past offenders from
repeating—is limited. Statistically, no evidence exists to support these laws have any effect
beyond the idea that state governments take sexual violence seriously. Further, the expansion of
mandatory sexual registration to many non-violent misdemeanor crimes is leading to an entire
class of society being labeled and branded with a modern day scarlet letter.

When you picture a sex offender - who comes to mind? It is likely someone guilty of a
heinous crime against children, or a brutally violent act against a stranger. These are the kind of
criminal offenders most people feel should be punished and subject to sexual offender
registration. But as we have become more vigilant in pursuing and punishing the most dangerous
sex offenders, has it come at the cost of stigmatizing and ostracizing from society many much
less dangerous people?

Imagine if you will, a drunk college student gets arrested while urinating in public.
Unbeknownst to our intoxicated student, he is within yards of a playground, and a mother
walking her children to the park sees him in this act. This public urination act can now be
charged as indecent exposure, a misdemeanor crime which under California law requires
mandatory lifetime sexual offender registration. Should he be required to spend the rest of his
life branded and stigmatized as a sex offender? Should he lose most employment opportunities,
the right to rent an apartment and live where he chooses due to a foolish and intoxicated act in
his youth?

These are the kind of offenders who suffer prolonged, disproportionate consequences due
to the broad expansion of the sex offender registry. There are many non-violent offenders on the
registry. Should these crimes be punished? They absolutely should. But should they warrant an
unconditioned lifetime of being registered as a sex offender?

Robust laws that help to track and attempt to curb violent sexual crimes are, of course,
necessary. But the ever-growing umbrella of the sex offender registry is making daily life a
shameful struggle for those convicted of non-violent misdemeanor crimes. Though they will not
be forced to wear a big scarlet ‘A,’ those found guilty of even the most minor “sex” offense may
be subjected to the continual punishment of shame and prevented from reintegration into society.

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