No, seriously, Ohio appears to have gone really spectacularly insane on the topic of sex offenders. Someone can be declared to be a sex offender by a civil court when there has been no criminal verdict, no criminal charges or a successful civil lawsuit. And it will then take six years to get your name off this registry, if you can.
An Ohio legislative panel yesterday rubber-stamped an unprecedented process that would allow sex offenders to be publicly identified and tracked even if they've never been charged with a crime. No one in attendance voiced opposition to rules submitted by Attorney General Jim Petro's office to the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, consisting of members of the Ohio House and Senate. The committee's decision not to interfere with the rules puts Ohio in a position to become the first state to test a "civil registry." The concept was offered by Roman Catholic bishops as an alternative to opening a one-time window for the filing of civil lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse that occurred as long as 35 years ago.
A recently enacted law allows county prosecutors, the state attorney general, or, as a last resort, alleged victims to ask judges to civilly declare someone to be a sex offender even when there has been no criminal verdict or successful lawsuit. The rules spell out how the untried process would work. It would largely treat a person placed on the civil registry the same way a convicted sex offender is treated under Ohio's so-called Megan's Law. The person's name, address, and photograph would be placed on a new Internet database and the person would be subjected to the same registration and community notification requirements and restrictions on where he could live. A civilly declared offender, however, could petition the court to have the person's name removed from the new list after six years if there have been no new problems and the judge believes the person is unlikely to abuse again....
Even allowing that these are civil judges, I would imagine that a decent judge would require something more than someone's unsupported allegation that sexual abuse occurred to put a person on this registry. In which case, you would have enough evidence, if not pursue criminal charges, to pursue a civil lawsuit. At which point, if the civil lawsuit is successful, it might not be entirely unreasonable to put someone's name on the registry. (Assuming that you think that these registries are good ideas, and I'm on record as thinking that they aren't.)
My guess -- and it is only an uninformed guess -- is that at some point, a judge will throw out this process, because it effectively finds someone guilty of a crime entirely without a criminal trial. There's no such thing as declaring someone guilty of a crime by fiat, which this effectively is. The trick is going to be that you have to have standing to bring the suit, which means it will be someone who was declared to be a sex offender without benefit of a trial, which means that they will be assumed to be guilty and the alleged news media is going to have a field day trashing them.
Purely a side note: at some point, states are going to have to actually think about how they handle sex offenders. At the moment, the process involves a combination of registries, post-prison imprisonment, and restrictions on where and how they can live. Georgia has already effectively declared that sex offenders cannot live in any urbanized area, by stating that they can't live within range of declared school bus stops. The law is without effect at the moment because, as it was written by the legislature, it requires the state school board to declare where the official bus stop locations are, which they have never done and cannot do, because those are determined by local and county school boards. It won't be long before the legislature fixes that ... and then what? Sex offenders in Georgia will neither be able to live or work in any even vaguely urbanized place. (And, let me point out, the vast majority of convicted sex offenders do not commit crimes against children; they commit crimes against adults that, for the most part, they already knew.) At the same time, they are not allowed to leave the state, are not allowed to be without jobs, are not allowed to apply for or receive either welfare or state/federal medical assistance. This is a contradiction that simply doesn't work.
At some point, states will need to get honest about what it is they want to do. They will either need to decide that, yes, all right, we need to find SOME way to deal with this that allows these people to at least try to live. Or they will need to finally say, "You know what? We don't care about you guys at all. All nonviolent sex offenders are sentenced to life in prison -- even if their crime is merely statutory rape, involving a difference of a few years and a technically consensual encounter -- and violent sex offenders will be sentenced to death. Violence is defined as anything that isn't statutory rape. Thus, you all die! Isn't that special? Aren't we proud of our vengeful society? Yes, we are!"
We won't do that, of course. We'll just keep nibbling away at what few rights they have until some weary judge, knowing full well that they'll be about to take on the "righteous" fury of the public, says, "Enough. These laws are unworkable, and criminals who have served their sentences do have some rights, however few. You cannot DO this." And they will keep saying it until the legislature comes up with a realistic solution. (Their realistic solution is likely to be to try to impeach the judge or otherwise remove them from office, of course. Legislatures are like that.)
I expect it'll be a while before that happens, though.Posted by iain at September 05, 2006 01:14 AM
"My guess -- and it is only an uninformed guess -- is that at some point, a judge will throw out this process, because it effectively finds someone guilty of a crime entirely without a criminal trial. There's no such thing as declaring someone guilty of a crime by fiat, which this effectively is."
Even if a judge decides that this is the equivalent to finding someone guilty without a trial, the problem is that the courts have generally found that sex offender registration isn't "punishment." This is a pretty good overview. And if you aren't being punished, then have your due process rights really been violated?
It's a mess. I hate the amount of stretching and backflipping the courts have had to do in order to call these laws constitutional. In some ways I think that is the worst part of this, not the hardship caused to individual offenders, but the general violence these laws have done to the constitution.Posted by Beth at September 7, 2006 09:35 AM