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Get rid of the registry

Oct 3, 2017

There’s nothing I can say about the tragedy in Las Vegas, except this: some version of that will happen in Michigan, probably sooner rather than later.

The politicians are either in the pay of the gun lobby fanatics or resigned to the fact that they can’t possibly overcome them, so nothing will change.

Nothing, that is, unless and until people somehow demand that democracy and sanity be restored. So far, they haven’t, and the senseless killing will go on.

But there is something we do have an opportunity to change: Our stupid and morally offensive sex offender registry. Last year, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals correctly struck down major sections of it, such as its clearly unconstitutional adding restrictions retroactively, such as banning convicted sex offenders from working within a thousand feet of a school.

First of all, I don’t know how, under our Constitution, you can go on punishing people who have served their sentence, no matter what the crime. That’s what they did in the old Soviet Union. You got sentenced to your term in the Gulag, and if you survived it, they frequently announced you were banned from living in certain cities.

I had thought we were better than that. But besides, there’s no more sacred principle in American justice than that you can’t make retroactive, ex post facto laws. Let’s say the legislature reinstates the motorcycle helmet requirement next year. You couldn’t prosecute someone for riding without a helmet in 2017 when that was fully legal.

Except we tend to throw out everything we know about fairness when it comes to sex offenders. Well, at least our courts are better than that. Yesterday, we learned that the Supreme Court refused to hear Michigan’s appeal of the earlier court decision, which means the nation’s highest court agrees much of the act should be struck down.

State Senator Rick Jones, himself a former sheriff, said he’d convene a workgroup to make changes in the sex offender registry, one that would include the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, something that is sensible and fair.

Here's how you fix it: Get rid of it.

ACLU lawyers, after all, were the ones who got the unconstitutional portions of this act struck down. Miriam Aukerman, the ACLU’s senior staff attorney, told the Gongwer News Service yesterday that the sex offender list doesn’t work, and that it was “bloated, wasteful, and counterproductive.” All it does, she said, is waste law enforcement resources and make it more difficult for those convicted to rejoin society as good citizens.

She was exactly right, except that it also lowers property values for the innocent and serves as an invitation to vigilante justice.

So here’s how you fix it: Get rid of it. Or have some version that only includes rapists, other perpetrators of violent sex crimes, and child molesters. Ideally, make it only accessible to law enforcement agencies. Right now, the home of some people I know is on that list because their 20 year old son got a drug habit, and began selling child pornography on line.

He went to federal prison, and their lives were ruined. Senator Jones, who understands law enforcement, will, thanks, to term limits, soon leave office. Senator, this is a golden opportunity to leave us a legacy of common sense.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.