The Sex Offender Registry: Aiming to Serve the Public or Only Please the Public?
Getting one’s name removed from the sex offender registry list can be a daunting and tedious process in some states. While some believe the process should be made more difficult, others find that the longer a sex offender stays on the list, the less likely they are to reintegrate into society and the more likely they are to recidivate.
The controlling North Carolina statute, G.S. § 14-208.12A, lays out the requirements for removing one’s name from the registry. According to the North Carolina Department of Justice, under the statute, adult registrants not classified as recidivists, aggravated offenders, or sexually violent predators may petition to be removed from North Carolina’s registry. To petition, offenders must have been registered for at least ten years on the North Carolina Registry. Time spent on another state’s registry does not contribute toward the minimum requirement.
According to a Hastings Law Journal article entitled “The Evolution of Unconstitutionality in Sex Offender Registration Laws,” although significant energy and resources have been expended to create broad-based registry systems, states have devoted insufficient thought to developing mechanisms to remove offenders from these registries. The public is so concerned with having sex offenders’ names and information made accessible that they tend to forget the ultimate goal is to reintegrate these offenders into society. As such, legislation tends to cater to the public.
States such as North Carolina offer offenders an opportunity to petition to the superior court in the district where they reside to have their names removed from the registry. However, jurisdictions are generally granted discretion to continue to provide information to law enforcement – even if a person’s name has been removed from the registry. Some states, on the other hand, have no procedural process for offenders to have their name removed.
Because the removal procedure in North Carolina is primarily left up to the discretion of the superior court judge and the district attorney, the process is more difficult and uncertain for petitioners. Procedurally, the district attorney in the prosecutorial district must be given notice of the petition at least three weeks prior to the court hearing the matter and may oppose the petition. If certain procedural requirements are met, the court is satisfied the offender is not a current or potential threat to public safety, and the judge is satisfied that removal would not violate any federal law, the court can order that the offender be removed from the registry. If an offender’s request is denied, he or she can continue to petition annually.
Even in cases where sex offenders are successful in having their names removed from the registry, they still face daily challenges and humiliation. As the Hastings Law Journal noted, the Internet still poses significant issues for prior offenders, “Unlike a generation ago, where a flyer or notice could be removed from a storefront wall, registration information on the Internet is forever ‘etched in cyberspace.’”
More legislation is passed every year that places a stricter burden on registered sex offenders. Registration requirements are constantly changing, and the Hastings Law Journal attributes these changes to the public’s fear of the stereotypical image of the sex offender: “Unfortunately, that singular perception ignores the reality that sex offender statutes stigmatize wide-ranging actions and apply to broad segments of the population.”
North Carolina, along with 34 other states, has recently been met with both approval and disdain for its decision not to adopt the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), passed in 2006. SORNA is included in the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 (which lists sex offenders as young as 14 on a uniform registry) and requires county sheriffs to collect more information about registered sex offenders and makes more data available on searchable public websites. SORNA would also require that the North Carolina Sex Offender Registry include offenders’ workplace addresses, the addresses of their schools or colleges and the license plate numbers and descriptions of any vehicles they own or operate.
Under SORNA, offenders are categorized by their crime and are automatically assigned to a tier based on the offense. Tier I is the lowest tier, but even offenders who fall under that category must register for a minimum of 15 years, sometimes 20. Under the Act, more crimes have been assigned to lifetime registration, making it impossible to get off the registry.
North Carolina and other states that failed to adopt the Act were given a July 2011 deadline to comply with SORNA or else face a ten percent cut in grants. According to the Juvenile Justice Network, 2009 figures revealed that North Carolina would have lost $900,000 of its federal Byrne Justice Assistance Grant for taking a pass on SORNA, but implementing it would cost the state as much as $14.7 million.
Many North Carolina officials are proponents of the Act and disagree with the legislature’s failure to adopt SORNA. “It’s the same principles and purpose of the laws we have now — protecting the public by providing information on known offenders,” said John Aldridge, special deputy attorney general at the N.C. Department of Justice in an article published by The Wilson Times. “By coming into full SORNA compliance, we have an expansion of that database of offenders, and that seems to get to the heart of it.” While the Department of Justice and other state officials believed SORNA would benefit states and public safety overall, North Carolina and 34 other states ultimately disagreed.
Many registration laws are overly broad and have negative lasting effects on adults who were labeled as sex offenders as teenagers. Ricky Blackman can attest to this fact. According to a CNN interview, Blackman moved from Iowa to Oklahoma for a fresh start after he was convicted at age 16 as an adult sex offender for having sex with his 13-year-old girlfriend, who he had believed was 15. His record was expunged in Iowa, but he was required to register as a Tier III sex offender (the highest level) in Oklahoma. Blackman was unable to attend high school, visit the town library, or go to his younger brother’s football games.
Fortunately, four years later, Blackman’s name was removed from the registry when Oklahoma’s legislature passed a law expunging certain offenses committed in different jurisdictions. However, even with his name removed from the state’s registry, having been labeled as a sex offender continues to haunt him. “Ricky was full of life and now he’s definitely more cautious, more reserved,” said his mother, Mary Duval.
With more offenders being forced to register and with currently registered sex offenders having to extend their time on the registry based on changing state and federal acts, the process of getting one’s name removed from public registries is likely to become more difficult. More people will be petitioning for removal, which will slow the process. Others will be forced to wait even longer to petition their registry listing. Even worse, some offenders will be categorized as top tier (in states where SORNA is enforced) or lifelong offenders without the possibility of petitioning.
Furthermore, according to the National Juvenile Justice System, evidence suggests registries have done little to increase public safety. In fact, a 2009 study found that offenders classified under SORNA as “least likely to recidivate” are the most likely to be re-arrested. The 2009 study, which appeared in the Criminal Justice Policy Review, concluded that registries like SORNA lull the public into a false sense of security, and are “almost completely ineffective at categorizing sex offenders based on risk of sexual recidivism.”
Studies tend to show that strict registration laws are not completely effective. However, some evidence indicates otherwise, and many states would rather be overly broad in their adoption of new legislation as opposed to letting all sex offenders serve their time and not face the humiliation and struggle of being a registered sex offender.
On the other hand, according to the Journal, the supreme courts of Indiana, Maine, and Ohio have reached the conclusion that its state’s serially amended scheme is no longer serving its purpose. The decisions in all three courts hold that a registration system is put in place to protect the public, but many states’ decisions and amendments tend to undermine the original aim of a registration scheme.
Although North Carolina chose not to comply with SORNA, there are a number of federal acts that must be complied with under G.S. § 14-208.12A. Sex offender registries will continue to be made public and removing one’s name from the list will be a time consuming and difficult process. Moving forward, it seems the best solution for the registry process is to evaluate the purpose these registries are intended to serve and enforce legislation that provides a direct means to that end, not simply adopting legislation that appeals to the public by easing possible illegitimate fears about sex offenders and catering to their misconceptions about the effectiveness of registries.