By Sarah Greenberg, Benevolence Farm Intern
The United States Department of Justice Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART) utilizes the Sex Offender Registry to compile a list of people convicted of sex offenses in every state, territory, and tribal area. This compiled list includes their address, physical appearance, and conviction history. In 1996, Megan’s Law was passed with a goal to publicize the Sex Offender Registry, in order to notify community members of registered people convicted of sex offenses and place information about them on the internet. This law was initiated after Megan Kanka was raped and murdered at seven years old by her neighbor in New Jersey. The law had hopes of lowering recidivism rates. However, there is little evidence supporting Megans’s Law as an effective route to achieving that goal. The crimes that can lead to individuals being placed on the Sex Offender Registry range from rape to public urination, but the people put on the registry are subject to the same restrictions, no matter the conviction. Shawna, a woman from Oklahoma, was put on the registry for life at age 19 as a “child molester” after she consensually had sex with a minor. The minor’s mother filed against her without his permission. The laws we have in place currently have not granted justice to Shawna, but rather given her a lifetime full of hardships, like not being able to take her two kids to the park after school and struggling to hold a steady job. Signing unfair and lifelong forms of punishment into law for a generalized group will not aid appropriate pursuits of justice in our country.
There are immense collateral consequences that come with being registered, such as difficulty with employment, relationships, housing, and feeling stigmatized and vulnerable. All of these hinder individuals ability to reintegrate and move forward. These consequences are more commonly understood for men as they make up about 92% of the sample size in most research. Women convicted of sexual offenses are often not widely discussed or researched, so proper resources for treatment and reentry are limited. Reinventing a system that focuses on transformative justice, or repairing the harm caused by the criminal legal system, would have a profound impact on transforming an individual’s trajectory after being convicted.
As a country and as individuals, we must consciously move towards unlearning systemic patterns that helped create dehumanizing societal constructs. We must learn to lead with compassion and understanding rather than spite and lack of consideration. We must learn to provide restorative justice for individuals who are convicted of crimes rather than subjecting them to inhumane collateral consequences. There are far too many dehumanizing aspects of the criminal legal system in our country. I will vulnerably state I was not fully aware of the level of injustice involved with the Sex Offender Registry. In our society, we often are too quick to believe all of our current policies, laws, and systems are effective and needed. We criminalize behaviors and put people in boxes that limit their ability to grow and move forward. If we choose not to think critically about what we are told keeps us safe, like the Sex Offender Registry, we put vulnerable members of humanity in harm’s way. Inevitably, this type of compliance puts all of humanity in harm’s way.
So, we must learn to question, learn to rethink, learn to reinvent. Candidly, I have found this a challenging path to uncover and navigate because sexual offenses can be extremely serious. In the midst of the #MeToo Movement, we are called to listen to survivors and hold people who have committed sex crimes accountable. How we hold people accountable, and the types of action that facilitate true healing for survivors, is still unclear. Let us not get lost or paralyzed in the complex and emotionally charged nature of these discussions, but rather be motivated to think creatively and holistically about our path moving forward.
- Dara Lind, “Why the sex offender registry isn’t the right way to punish rapists” https://www.vox.com/2016/7/5/11883784/sex-offender-registry
- Hallie Lieberman, “Sex Offender Laws Are Broken. These Women Are Working To Fix Them” https://reason.com/2020/01/18/sex-offender-laws-are-broken-these-women-are-working-to-fix-them/
- Women Against Registry website (Referenced in articles): https://ww1.womenagainstregistry.org
- Richard Tewksbury, “Experiences and Attitudes of Registered Female Sex Offenders” https://www.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/68_3_5_0.pdf
Accounts to Follow to Learn More:
Women Against Registry
Facebook: Women Against Registry
Prison Policy Initiative
Facebook: Prison Policy Initiative
Facebook: Anti-Recidivism Coalition