SAN FRANCISCO—When ex-Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner became a registered sex offender for life last Tuesday, he joined a nationwide list of registered sex criminals that has grown dramatically in recent years to more than 800,000.
Even some who have denounced Turner’s six-month jail sentence as too lenient for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman question whether he should spend his life with the stigma and onerous restrictions of a registered sex offender.
They join a growing number of defense attorneys, advocates and judges who are questioning the fairness of applying lifetime, blanket restrictions to expanding definitions of sex crimes that frequently treat first-time offenders the same as serial rapists.
In California, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama it’s impossible for people convicted of any sex crime to be removed from the online registries showing their pictures, addresses, convictions and probation details. Offenders have been turned into victims themselves when they are targeted in vigilante attacks or can’t find jobs or places to live, critics say.
Stanford University law professor Michele Dauber, who lambasted Turner’s sentence as too lenient and is leading a campaign to oust the judge who imposed, said requiring the 21-year-old man to be registered as a sex offender until he dies may be too harsh.
“No one should be defined by their worst decision for the rest of their life,” Dauber said in an interview. “Deciding who should be removed, which cases or crimes should qualify would require thoughtful legislation, a fair process and, of course, an unbiased judge.”
Dauber stressed there are many criminals who deserve lifetime registration, but said at some point after at least 10 years on the registry Turner should be given a chance to get off it by proving he has successfully rehabilitated himself.
Turner was released from jail Sept. 2 and moved to his parent’s home in Bellbrook, Ohio, registering as a sex offender at the Greene County sheriff’s office four days after his release from a California jail for good behavior after serving half his sentence. Protesters demonstrated in front of the home before and after his arrival and Turner’s parents told police eggs were thrown at the house.
Advocates for sex crime victims insist that lifetime registries make the public safer by preventing offender recidivism and giving citizens and police access to crucial information on the whereabouts of sex offenders and where they are prohibited from going — like schools and other areas frequented by children. Access to that information in 50 state registries plus a federal government registry, they say, far outweighs complaints about the registry burdens for criminals who have served their prison sentences.
“Sex offender registries are an important part of the criminal justice system,” said Staca Shehan of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “Registries assist law enforcement —and the public — to keep track of the locations of convicted sex offenders.”
But some defense attorneys say registration has turned into such a harsh punishment that they now negotiate longer jail terms for their clients in return for prosecutors dropping sex offender registry requirements, trading incarceration for pleading guilty to charges that don’t require registration.
“At least a prison sentence ends,” said Gary Goodman, a public defense lawyer from Palo Alto, California. “Registration is forever.”
Most states allow peeping toms and people convicted of crimes like indecent exposure to have their names removed from registries after 10 to 30 years of good behavior, while more serious sex crimes like rape and the sexual assault Turner was convicted of are punishable with lifetime registration whether they are committed by first time offenders or people with a history of sex crimes.
California attorney Janice Bellucci has filed more than 50 federal lawsuits challenging sex offender registration conditions in cases that have forced cities to amend or eliminate residency restrictions imposed on criminals listed in in the registries, rescinding prohibitions for them to be physically present in public places like street side bus stops and parks.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 upheld the legality of sex offender registries, but the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that changes to Michigan’s sex offender registry law cannot be applied retroactively to offenders convicted before the changes were put in place.
Calling Michigan’s residency and loitering prohibitions for registered sex offenders similar to “the ancient punishment of banishment,” the appeals court panel wrote that the state “brands registrants as moral lepers solely on the basis of a prior conviction.”
Federal officials have been trying with mixed success for a decade to get all 50 states to adopt uniform registration requirements as part of a single national database they say would make the system uniform and improve tracking of sex offenders who move from state to state. But only 17 states have substantially compiled so far.
The federally registry has helped investigators quickly identify potential sex crimes suspects and capture offenders who have fled their home states, said Luis deBacca, the U.S. Justice Department official in charge of the federal sex offender registration and tracking office.
“We really do see this as making a difference in the community,” deBacca said.