The N.H. Supreme Court is pondering the fate of a man convicted, several decades ago, of sexually assaulting his teenage stepdaughter. The man has served out his prison sentence, undergone years of counseling and been deemed “rehabilitated” by the court. Now in his 60s, he is disabled.
None of which would be fodder for the state’s highest court, except that since he was released from prison in 1990, the state has repeatedly enacted laws calling for those convicted of sexual assault against children to register with the police, so a legal — and public — eye can be kept on them. And yes, such laws include those who were sentenced long before the new laws were enacted.
The man now before the Supreme Court seeking relief from these laws has been dubbed John Doe to protect his anonymity. It’s ironic that Mr. Doe can hide his identity from the public in court, because the reason he’s there is that he can’t hide it anywhere else. Thanks to these laws — both state and federal — John Doe and others must allow not only the police to know where they are, they must let everyone know, by keeping their current address in a database accessible to anyone online.
And in many cases, they must do so for life. There is no mechanism for getting off the list, and failure to keep the information updated carries harsh penalties in itself.
If all this seems over the line of reasonable punishment, in many cases we agree. However, the state has argued inclusion on this public online registry is not a punishment, but a regulatory matter.
We think that reasoning is absurd. Clearly, it is a punishment, tantamount to those on the list being forced to wear a large letter “P” pinned to their chests in public.
And while belling the cat may be a good idea for those whose crimes indicate they will continue to pose a threat, there are some crimes designated as sexual in nature that may not, such as public urination.
This is not to ignore the real danger posed by sick minds — the hardcore predators who will never be rehabilitated. Given the recidivism rates involved in sexual assault cases, especially those victimizing children, there’s a lot to be said for keeping the public informed of legitimate threats. There does need to be some way for the public to be informed.
- What recidivism rate? You mean that sex offenders have one of the lowest recidivism rates of any other ex-felon?
Hearing the arguments of the John Doe case earlier this month, the justices seemed taken aback by the logic of the laws. One argued a paraplegic on the registry who now poses no threat to anyone could himself become a victim of vigilantes who look up his address online. If that seems far-fetched, consider the case of Stephen Marshall, who in 2006 killed two men whose names and addresses he’d looked up on Maine’s sex-offender registry.
We, too, worry that inclusion on a public registry could make a target of people who have otherwise served their sentence for crimes committed. We hope the court’s review will result in a close look at the state’s sex-offender registry, including how long someone who has been deemed rehabilitated by the courts should be on it and whether the list of crimes for which one qualifies needs to be culled.
- It also puts the lives of family members (innocent people) in danger as well, not just the ex-offenders!