Why Can’t We Redeem the Sex Offender?

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Photo by Michael Coghlan via Flickr

When large nonprofit organizations otherwise committed to making the American justice system less draconian hire people with violent criminal records, they send a strong message that justice-involved people change, and are capable of not only reentry but success.

But these same organizations do not have anyone on the sex offender registry on staff, regardless of qualifications or demonstrated rehabilitation.

This is unsurprising, yet tragic. When most people think of “sex offenders,” they imagine repulsive and heinous crimes against very young children. And in 2005, a Gallup poll suggested that Americans feared terrorists less than sex offenders.

In reality, the phrase “sex offender” describes any person convicted under a statute that requires sex offender registration, which lasts anywhere from 10 years to natural life, depending on the state and the offense.

The registry includes everyone from the mentally ill, remorseful flasher to the sexually-motivated killer, as well as the older party in a high school sweetheart relationship to a dangerous child rapist. There are almost one million Americans on sex offender registries, including people convicted for relatively minor sex crimes as children.

And what might sound like a heinous crime based on the name alone, like the production of child pornography, can describe what Edward Marrero faces prosecution for in federal court. Mr. Marrero admitted in court that he took sexual photos of his 17-year-old girlfriend when he was only 20 years old himself. Marrero now faces 15-to-30 years in federal prison for photos of a relationship that would be legal virtually everywhere in the world.

Sadly, the stigma against sex offenders means that we have created a huge population of people with skills to benefit humanity whose lives and mainstream contributions are seen as forfeit. This is despite the fact that people convicted of sex offenses are statistically unlikely to reoffend. Many prosecutors, police officers, corrections professionals, and criminal justice reformers are also aware that it is nonsensical to irreparably stigmatize a broad swath of offenders in the same exact way.

Signs of positive change have surfaced. Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who is rarely supportive of criminal justice reform, openly supported a passed bill to modify California’s lifetime-for-all sex offender registry. The law, signed by Governor Jerry Brown, will permit most offenders to be removed sometime within their natural lives.

I have personally seen law professors, as well as criminal justice organizations like Brennan Center for Justice, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and #Cut50, thoughtfully engage with people on the registry on social media. I myself have had acquaintances, colleagues, and co-workers who are on the registry. But there is zero evidence that these groups hire sex offenders.

It is important for directly impacted people to have a say in efforts intended to help them. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has pushed against employment discrimination against those with criminal records, and has more recently has hired highly qualified people who have committed serious crimes in their pasts.

But the ACLU appears to not have a single person on the registry as a part of any branch’s staff.

Is a close-in-age relationship between a young adult and a teenager morally worse than murder, kidnapping, or robbery? What about teen sexting? No, and the absolute dearth of otherwise-qualified sex offenders in criminal justice reform careers shows how far we have titled the scales from reality.

Criminal justice reform organizations should be able to ask these questions and answer them realistically, without putting too much credence in the byzantine and cruel state of American sex laws. After all, we know better than anyone that the law is not always what is right.

Let us hire sex offenders when we believe in them.

Editor’s Note: The above article is a revised version of an earlier essay published on this site, which was removed at the author’s request.

Rory Fleming is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors nationwide. He previously worked for the Fair Punishment Project, which was founded as a joint project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute. Fleming blogs at The Digest and tweets from @RoryFleming8A.

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