I met Shawna a year into filming “Untouchable,” a documentary that examines sex offender laws through the lives of individuals on the sex offender registry. It was at an Oklahoma treatment center where she was participating in a mandatory group therapy session. She was there because fifteen years earlier, Shawna was deemed to be a sexual predator after pleading guilty to having consensual sex with a 14-year-old boy when she was 19.
Listening to Shawna’s story, it became immediately clear that she was far from the kind of person we imagine when we think about sexual predators. She wasn’t some serial rapist or violent pedophile, but rather a young woman who happened to hook up with the wrong guy on her birthday.
Note in Alabama, no matter the age or the circumstances, any person convicted of any sex crime is treated the same as the true sex predator.
A person will be placed on lifetime registration even if the “victim” misrepresented their age.
Adrian was a junior at North Dakota State majoring in business management, when he travelled to Miami for spring break. There, he met a girl at an 18-and-over club. They flirted and danced, then walked to the beach where they had sex. They spent about five days together, hanging out on and off and occasionally hooking up.
Adrian returned to college after the trip and all seemed well, until seven months later when he got a call from a detective with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. As it turns out, the girl had used a fake ID to get into the club. She was actually 15 years old at the time. Her mom filed a complaint when she found out what had happened.
Asked to return to Miami to answer some questions, Adrian took a bus back to Florida. He explained to the detective that everything was consensual, and that he’d assumed the girl must have been 18 or older since she was in the club. Officers recorded his statement, thanked him for his co-operation, handcuffed him and placed him under arrest. Unable to post the $40,000 bond set by a judge, Adrian remained in jail for nearly eight months. It was the first and only time he’d ever been arrested.
But the arrest was only the beginning of the nightmare.
Five years after his guilty plea, Adrian had been rejected from more jobs than he could count. Unable to find housing that complied with a Miami ordinance that prevents registrants from living within 2,500 feet of any public or private school, daycare center or playground, Adrian was was forced into homelessness. He slept in a car parked in a lot — one of the few places sex offenders are actually allowed to reside. His college career was over, as was any hope he ever harbored of having a productive life. Then, two years ago, almost a decade after his conviction, Adrian failed to properly register his whereabouts with the police. As a result, he was sentenced to three years in prison.
These stories are consistent with many of my former clients. Registries for adults have been upheld by the United States Supreme Court because the registry is not punitive. Smith v. Doe, 538 U.S. 84, 99, 101 (2003) How is this not considered punishment for life?
The list of crimes which will get you on the lifetime sex offender list is long. See 15-20A-5. These are some things which can get you treated as a sexual predator.
- Oral sex between a 17 year old and a 15 year old.
- A high school student texting a picture of herself to a boyfriend
- Sexual play between cousins
One editorialist expresses it well:
It is not that easy. We think we know what a sex offender is, but we do not. What do a 17-year-old boy having consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend, a streaker, and a drunk, naked frat boy rolling around on the front lawn of his fraternity house shouting “Roll Tide” have in common?
According to Alabama law, they are all “sex offenders.” Once arrested and found guilty, they are branded for life.
The streaker and the drunk frat boy are easily dismissed, but the two teenagers are not. Alabama law holds that a girl under the age of 16 cannot agree to consensual sex with a boy older than she is; therefore, the boy is a rapist and a sex offender.
Ridiculous? Think again. I know such a boy in the Shiloni program. Mom and dad get mad, and the boy gets jail.
Rather than narrowly target a very few dangerous offenders and allow them to be monitored by law enforcement, we have morphed our registry into a massive instrument of public censure and marginalization, while utterly failing to advance the purpose for which it was created. The social science is unequivocal: the registry doesn’t make us safer, or reduce sexual violence. What it does is ruin hundreds of thousands of lives — the lives of people like Adrian and Shawna — in a vain attempt to put a human face on our fears.