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Sex offender registry months out-of-date, but little action from lawmakers
The Record-Eagle - 9/13/2020
Sep. 13--LANSING -- Michigan's Sex Offender Registry could collapse if legislators can't find a fix -- and there's no telling when their deadline will come.
In early 2020, U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland declared several aspects of Michigan's Sex Offender Registry unconstitutional, citing oppressive amendments woven into the law, vagueness and 1st Amendment conflicts.
The early spring order released 44,000 sex offenders from their reporting responsibilities and prohibits additions to the list until a fix is in place.
Cleland gave lawmakers a deadline of two weeks past the end of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's ongoing coronavirus-spurred state of emergency -- which, with a Supreme Court decision on state of emergency constitutionality being drafted, could come quickly.
Police and prosecutors have been left in the lurch for months, with a draft but no final bill on the matter sitting in the state legislature.
"We've kinda got everything on hold right now," said Traverse City Police Capt. Jim Bussell. "(The order) changed all the rules."
The currently frozen Michigan State Police-maintained registry lists each offender's full name, age, sex, weight, height, hair and eye color, descriptions of scars, all known addresses, license plate and vehicle registration information, a portrait, their status, conviction details and the severity and description of their crime. They're required to check in with police regularly and pay annual fines.
Registration-invoking offenses range from child porn possession and surveillance-related crimes to human trafficking of a minor, kidnapping, first-degree criminal sexual conduct and gross indecency.
"You can be on that list and maybe all you did was publicly urinate," said Benzie County Sheriff Ted Schendel, who also uses the system for tracking and investigative purposes. "But oftentimes, some of these crimes start off as little things that lead to bigger things."
The victims behind many of the listed names appreciate it too, according to officials with the Traverse City-based Women's Resource Center, a nonprofit providing support to victims of domestic and sexual violence.
"They become an advocate for themselves by knowing whether or not the perpetrator complies with current registration laws, and if not they can call law enforcement and seek some remedy," said Carl Mormann, associate director of advocacy.
Executive Director Juliette Schultz says the registry is a vital tool when conducting background checks on employees and volunteers as well.
Much of the arguments preceding the order concerned "exclusion zones" -- offenders are prohibited from living within or passing through these areas, with a range of 1,000 feet from a school property.
What complicates the term is there's no clarity on where to start measuring -- from a school building itself, or from its property line.
It also applies to any school-owned grounds, including assets not in use and lands not clearly marked as school-owned. The Michigan'sAmerican Civil Liberties Union found in 2017 that, with the property line reading of the law applied, about half the city of Grand Rapids was essentially inaccessible to offenders.
ACLU spokeswoman Kimberly Buddin did not return a call for comment.
And Cleland is still waiting for an answer from Michigan's Republican-led legislature -- lawmakers have yet to send anything to Democrat Whitmer's desk.
A still-in-the-works plan introduced to the House of Representatives would make at least seven changes to the law -- doing away with tiers, extending and defining time limits, relaxing some exclusion zone restrictions and clarifying others and a reassessment of public and private sides of the registry.
The legislation would split registered offenders into two groups with different levels of enforcement and public records availability, according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis.
That legislation was introduced to the House in March, but after a referral has sat stagnant in the Judiciary Committee. The bill lists no action since March 17.
There's no guarantee a revival would even help -- Attorney General Dana Nessel levied shots at the bill, arguing the legislature's chosen changes aren't enough to satisfy Cleland's order, the Detroit News reported.
In a letter Nessel sent the Judiciary Committee in May, the Attorney General argues "the bill needs considerably more work," noting concern over those "exclusion zones" and "onerous" requirements for in-person reporting.
Attorney General's Office officials declined comment on the matter.
A LAW ENFORCEMENT TOOL
The Michigan Sex Offenders Registration Act initially created the database as a private tool for law enforcement in 1994 with much simpler requirements.
A list of amendments between 1999 and 2011 gave the law teeth and made it more oppressive, more expensive and more difficult to follow, a 2017 ACLU report claims.
Later legislative adds included internet accessibility, expanded offenses, mugshots, the provenly controversial "exclusion zones" and the contested tier requirements.
To some, like ACLU officials, the database simply ostracizes offenders, especially those with less serious convictions -- and does so with little proof of helping public safety at all.
Data from a 2010 US Department of Justice-funded study by the Medical University of South Carolina showed no decrease of recidivism after the east coast state enacted similar sex offender registration laws.
The state did see an impact, though -- judges and prosecutors proved more generous with plea deals, often dropping sex crime charges into non-sex crime territory -- in part to avoid strict registration requirements.
Inclusion disqualifies offenders from subsidized housing and other public programs, the Detroit News reported.
Social stigma can lead to exemptions from job opportunities, some volunteer work and other organizations.
Still, Schendel and others feel letting the database crumble shouldn't be allowed to happen.
"Even though he may rule it unconstitutional ... I think public safety is paramount," he said. "It would take away the ability of the public to be aware of a sexual predator in their neighborhood. As a mom or dad, you're gonna wanna know those things."
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