“He is a sex offender! Stay away!,” everyone whispers as he walks into the room. “We do not want him here!,” others exclaim amongst themselves. The chatter continues as this group of self-proclaimed spiritual people—allegedly accepting of all—is in an uproar over the man’s presence. Mind you, this gentleman has done absolutely nothing to the group. He has never sexually harassed any of the women. He has never made unwanted sexual comments to the females in the room. He is an individual attending the get-together just like the rest of us. The only difference? Someone had learned through the online sex offender registry that he was on that dreaded list. Therefore, clearly, he must be a danger to society and no women are safe around him.
The rumblings about this man’s presence do not subside. I hear one woman standing nearby me bellow, “There could be children present; he is not welcome!” This makes me chuckle. Children? We are a group of people that met weekly at this location and not once have I seen children. Of course, children could come with their parents if they wanted to, but parents choose to leave their children behind. On this particular night, as usual, there were no children in sight. Additionally, that reasoning—he is not welcome because children might be present—did not really make much sense to me. There could be children anywhere in public. Registered sex offenders would not be able to go to any location based on this woman’s rationale.
The way the group was gossiping about this man behind his back saddened me. The fact that the majority of the individuals were so strongly opinionated about his presence caused me grief. Hearing a confrontation, I remerge from my thoughts into the present moment just in time to see the woman who was fearful children would suddenly appear emphatically order the man to leave the property. She tells him he is not welcome. We do not want him here. She tells him to never return. At this point, I feel as if I needed to step in and defend the man.
While I did take his side, if I could re-do this moment, I would have advocated even more on his behalf. I do not approach the duo as the woman kicks him out, but as soon as it happens, I tell the others standing around outside that I do not see any issue with his presence. As the man rides off into the night on his bicycle and the confronter returns, I ask her why she does not want him here and why she feels it is necessary to make him leave. “The children! The children! He is a registered sex offender!” I am sure she said more, but that is all I remember.
I still see this man around town at times. Without fail, someone mentions, “He is a registered sex offender! Be careful!” I have not seen him kicked out of any places since that one fateful day, but individuals always keep a healthy distance from the man. They will not engage in conversation with him. They will not greet him with the normal pleasantries they treat their friends. He is an outsider. He is unwanted, all because he is a sex offender. He is marked for life
Unfortunately, the way that the sex offender registration law has played out in real life seems contrary to the primary purpose of the registry. When most people think of “sex offender,” an image of a serial child molester comes to mind. For instance, a man who breaks into houses in the early morning hours to take advantage of innocent children or a relative who abuses all the toddlers in the family. While these individuals can be found on sex offender registries, the majority of registrants do not fit into that mold.
Think about the following instance—oral copulation of a minor. A 22-year-old boy has oral sex with a 17-year-old girl. The 22-year-old college student made a terrible decision. He should not have engaged in any sexual activity with the minor. However, he has since learned his lesson. His arrest for oral copulation of a minor made him open his eyes and change his life. He is more careful about with whom to have intimate relations. He has learned about the horrors of jail and the criminal justice system. Prior to this incident, he had a completely clean record. He did not even have so much as a traffic ticket. Now, however, not only is he a felon, but also he is a sex offender registrant for the rest of his life.
Similarly, think about an intoxicated college student who indecently exposes himself in public. He is arrested and charged with a misdemeanor violation of indecent exposure. Maybe he has a past driving under the influence on his record, but that is the extent of his criminal past. Nevertheless, because of this misdemeanor conviction for indecent exposure that he sustains, he also is a sex offender registrant for life.
Sex offender registries do not differentiate between the violations with which someone is convicted. A serial child molester and the inebriated college student who had an indecent exposure conviction on his record twenty years ago are treated the same. They both have the label. The label follows them both around as they navigate life. Anyone can find either of the offenders’ names with a search of the Internet. There are restrictions on where they are allowed to reside. There are numerous other regulations they must abide by as well. Most importantly, there is a massive social stigma.
It is time for a change. It is time for the legal system to revamp the sex offender registration requirements. Numerous registrants on the list are harmless. They are some of the nicest people you will know. They could be your neighbor, your brother, your friend, or your spouse. They could be the man behind the deli counter, the woman ringing you up for coffee, or the man sitting on the park bench. When a wide array of criminal charges require blanket sex offender registration, registration becomes meaningless. The punishment of registering does not fit the crime oftentimes. Sadly, however, the majority of society members do not have this intricate knowledge of the criminal justice system. Instead, they hear “sex offender” and run.
Sex offender registration should always be a case-by-case basis determination. Further, the overwhelming majority of registrants should not be required to register for life. Start with a short time frame and see what changes the person makes in his or her life. Make it such that after a certain period, people graduate off the list. Make temporary sex offender registration the norm. Only in extreme circumstances, should someone be required to register for life. The punishment needs to fit the offense.