Less is More

“I told you so”. You might as well say it out loud. The gay community has a right to level a huge “I told you so” at all the people who thought Megan’s Law, which releases the names of convicted sex offenders to the public, was going to empower parents to better protect their kids.

       In theory Megan’s Law was a noble idea. Save the children! Empower parents! Give the public a fighting chance by letting them know where herds of predators roam free. But in practice, what was lauded as a shiny new tool for the parental toolbox has turned out to be a rusted ax, and over 14 years, that ax has come to have a very bloody blade.

     I am sure you heard the horror stories from the first few years after Megan’s Law was enacted in 1997. For instance, in California, the state’s response to the Jacob Wetterling Act – the federal version of Megan’s Law – was to dump into the public domain 42,000 names of everyone convicted of a “sexual offense” over the previous 20 years . Included in that one-size fits all release were many elderly gay men who had been convicted of sodomy, or “lewd and lascivious behavior” (often code for public displays of affection between two men) in the 50s and 60s when such things were illegal. There were so many of these cases that California had to enact a procedure for these men to petition to have their names removed. I am sure that was not an insignificant or benign event in any of their rudely interrupted lives.

     But that was 14 years ago, surely the system was tweaked and is now working to avert stranger danger wherever it is lurking. Think again. All over the country sex offender registries, meant to give parents information, have been co-opted as a law enforcement cudgel, used as a punishment, or as a plea bargaining tool for prosecutors. The result is there are now so many names on the various state’s list; there is very little chance any concerned citizen will be able to ferret out the true predators hidden among them.

     In 2006 Congress finally took action to reign in the states. The Adam Walsh Act ordered each state to create a tiered system so flashers and rapists and young men who had sex with their underage partners are not all listed in the very same way. (Notice that “fix” only took 9 years to enact.) My own state of Michigan set up a three-tiered system in March of this year, and while I do hope the changes will mean fewer undeserving people are stigmatized unjustly, I am not hopeful that the Adam Walsh Act will really help make the program what it was meant to be: a source of pertinent information to help parents.

    So what could? What specifically do parents need? Fewer names. An alert parent can be expected to protect against three dangerous neighbors, or maybe even twenty dangerous neighbors, but what can he possibly do about 500 suspect neighbors in his own zip code?

    The solution to the dilemma is easy to see; reduce the number of names on the sex offender’s list to only the most dangerous criminals. But there in lies the paradox. Because while parents need a list with fewer suspects, judges are not going to take those parents needs into consideration at sentencing time. Prosecutors are still going to overcharge in order to plea bargain with what tier the suspect will be put into. And lawmakers are not going to risk reining them in, lest they be called “soft on crime” – particularly sex crimes – by their political opponents. And all of them fear the lawsuit and the press coverage should someone left off the list attack a child.

We can see the solution. We just can’t get there from here.

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