Update state sex offender registry law

November 1, 2015

It's not often that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and conservative Republican members of the state legislature agree on the same issue, but they, as do we, believe it is time for the state's Sex Offender Registry Act to be amended.

The act, created in 1994 by then-state Sen. (now Oakland County Sheriff) Michael Bouchard, requires nearly 31,000 individuals, including about 1,800 in Oakland County, convicted of certain sex crimes to register identifying information with the state's online public sex offender registry. That includes offender names, addresses, photos, vehicle information and other information, which must be reported to law enforcement agencies up to four times a year. The law also restricts all offenders from residing, working or loitering in certain areas dubbed "student safety zones," or within 1,000 feet of a school. Since its enactment, there has been greater public awareness of those in our midst who have offended, why, and where they live. But more now needs to be done to develop consistency for law enforcement.

Critics of the online registry claim the list unfairly punishes registrants, those who have completed criminal sentences, because of restrictions and the fact their information is available to the public, which can cause some to have difficulty finding employment, adequate housing and successfully reintegrating into society. We don't doubt that. But we believe the availability of factual reporting on the registry serves the public good.

Beyond the information listed on the state's public sex offender registry, there are areas where the state's law needs improvement, both relating to the reporting requirements of identifying information, as well as some restrictions on offenders.

A March 31 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Cleland found that portions of the state's sex offender law were so confusing that it made it difficult for well-intentioned registrants to understand and meet all of their obligations under the law. Further, the court found that some portions of the state's law are unconstitutional because registrants have no way to know where the "student safety zones" are actually located.

While we typically feel ignorance isn't a valid defense for breaking the law, evidence exists that law enforcement agencies, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and even the courts are unable to determine exactly where such student safety zones begin or end. Such a system can create a trap for registrants making a concerted effort to abide by the law.

Legislation introduced in the state Senate addresses this issue by clarifying the requirements. The proposed amendment, SB 581, would also better define "loitering," under the law, and allow for offenders with children to participate in parental activities at schools. The bill will also eliminate immediate reporting of certain information, which the court finds to be problematic.

The ACLU and others say the changes are a good start to addressing the federal issues, and would add some clarification to the law. We agree.

We also feel it's worth noting that no matter how comprehensive or carefully crafted a sex offender registry law, it's important to remember that many sex offenses are committed by people known to the victim. While checking the registry may provide a sense of security, it shouldn't be a replacement for recognizing red flags or safe practices.

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