By Chris Dornin . . .
I was pleased to see a recent Sentinel editorial declaring the Internet sex offender roster punitive. My nonprofit group Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform filed an amicus brief in December supporting John Doe, a former sex offender challenging the New Hampshire sex offender shaming list as an unconstitutional ex-post-facto punishment.
At the oral arguments in May, all four justices asked questions suggesting they viewed the registry as an added criminal penalty applied retroactively. If Doe wins, he will blow some serious holes in the targeting registry. Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform is raising money to pay expert witnesses for a follow-up class-action suit that is ready for filing.
But your editorial should have gone further in its criticism of sex offender laws. Keene has lately become the New England epicenter of vigilantism against this demonized group. David Wheelock of Keene, a registrant and invalid, was shot dead at his front door last December. A front-door bludgeoning in October left Walter Field of Westmoreland with major head trauma. His attacker was looking for someone else, according to State Police. The next-door neighbor was a registrant.
It’s pretty easy to connect the dots here. But Keene and State Police have refused calls from Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform to take down the registry as a precaution, or even warn registrants they may be in grave danger. Worse, to my knowledge, the Keene police are the only ones in New Hampshire who post a user-friendly Internet map of sex offender registrants to help neighbors find them.
I must respectfully disagree with this part of your editorial:
“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.”
That passage is bad advice and reinforces the dangerous myth that sex offenders have high recidivism rates. Former Assistant Safety Commissioner John Stephen urged the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2002 to post our registry online, saying only 16 of the 717 people who had been on the non-public registry to date had been arrested for new sex crimes, including three for indecent exposure and one for criminal restraint. Stephen assumed publishing the list would lower the rate even more.
Dozens of research articles confirm that sex offenders have the lowest same-crime recidivism rate of any ex-prisoners, a cumulative 1 to 5 percent in the first three years out of prison, depending on the state. The rate per year plummets after that.
There is also extensive research showing the public registry does nothing to lower recidivism, but makes registrants unemployable and homeless. The widespread vigilantism against them makes them even more likely to re-offend. It costs them wives and support systems. It keeps them on the run. It pressures landlords to drive them out.
Lawrence Trant repeatedly stabbed a Concord registrant in 2004 and tried to burn an apartment building with another seven registrants.
“I hope I’ve done a service to the community,” Trant told the Boston Globe. “These guys are sexual terrorists.”
A chanting Manchester mob burned a scarecrow on the wooden porch of registrant Gloria Huot in 2006. Huot was away, but her roommate watched from inside their home with her two young sons and a baby. That is life on the registry.
Victim advocates in Ohio see the problem. Rape crisis centers in Texas and Cleveland filed an amicus brief supporting the successful Williams vs. Ohio challenge to the Ohio public registry. Margie Slagle, the lawyer for the women, argued the shaming list perpetuates dangerous myths, creates a false sense of security, misuses police resources, harms and destabilizes former offenders and thus increases the risk of recidivism.
“Any argument,” Slagle wrote, “that Ohio’s (Adam Walsh Act) is simply a remedial law designed to protect children and the public from sexual abuse and sex crimes is seriously flawed. Ohio’s AWA is not based on empirical evidence or proven research, but on fear and misinformation.”
The Ohio law was similar to New Hampshire’s.