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Commentary: Fairness and the sex offender list

This weekend I was at a baby naming, normally a joyous Jewish ceremony where even the in-laws get along. But one woman there was close to despair, thanks to a little-known bill about to be passed in Lansing.

Several years ago, her young adult son did a very stupid thing. I don’t know all the details, but he apparently got into looking at illegal child porn on the Internet. He never saw or touched an actual child, but he got caught in a federal sting. He ended up being sentenced to several years in federal prison. He should get out soon, but our lawmakers are about to make his and his innocent parents’ lives more of a nightmare.

As you probably know, for the past few years we’ve had something called the Michigan Public Sex Offender Registry, which lists all the details about someone who has been convicted of a major sex crime, including their current address.

Until now, however, my friend’s son, who committed what is called a “Tier I” crime, would not have been on the registry. Creators of child pornography are listed there, together with rapists and other violent offenders. But the legislature is about to require the state to also post data for anyone who has committed any crime involving minors, including looking at pornography.

State Senator Rick Jones, the sponsor of the bill, said he did it, “so parents and grandparents can protect their children from someone who happens to be in the area.”

That sounds nice, if you’ve watched a lot of John Wayne movies, but what’s that mean? Protect them how? From a young man who looked at nasty pictures from his bedroom?

Posting former offenders’ pictures and addresses seems to me to be nothing more than a way to make sure they can never be rehabilitated.  Who is going to give them a job or a chance? When this particular young man comes home, he will probably live with his parents.  Do they deserve to have their address listed as the home of a sex offender?

Personally, I think a public sex offender list is a bad idea to begin with. I suspect the state police know it too. The first page of the registry warns that it is illegal to take vigilante action against anyone on the list. Besides, in a democracy, you are supposed to get a chance to start over after you do your time.

This list effectively prevents that. I think local police should have a list and keep an eye on those who have actually molested people. But you could possibly get on this list for something as silly as public urination. As a man who takes his dog for long walks in the woods, I have reason to worry. 

Sadly, I expect this bill to pass the house unanimously. My friend’s state representative told her husband she thought the bill was a bad idea, but that politically, she couldn’t dare vote against it. So this family’s life will be further ruined, and Senator Jones gets to look like a tough-minded hero. But I think it would be nice if he put some of his zeal instead into figuring out how to fix our roads.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.