The coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented shutdown of many American institutions, from professional sports to many government agencies, including the suspension of many non-essential law enforcement services from fingerprinting to vehicle registration.
However, people required to register under the complex public sex offense registry scheme must still register in person. This puts the health of registrants, their families, agency employees, police officers, and the general public in danger.
Over the past month, I have searched press releases, news reports and social media posts, along with direct contact with law enforcement agents, to determine what changes have been made to sex offense registration during this pandemic.
Of the 182 agency responses, only a dozen have suspended registration, and just 44 agencies are taking registry over the phone or Internet. The rest still require in-person registration.
Some agencies tried to reassure registrants their safety has been taken under consideration. Several police agencies have placed barriers in offices and required appointments to be made to limit the number of registered persons at the stations.
I believe these agencies could do more.
In reviewing registry office reactions to COVID-19, I’ve come to realize just how confusing registration laws can be in America. Some states require registration with the state police; others at the sheriff’s office or local police station; and some have to register at multiple agencies.
Many agencies posted notices on social media outlets like Facebook or NextDoor, two websites that prohibit Registered Persons from creating accounts.
It’s not surprising that Registered Persons are confused by the registration laws—even without the added complication of a global pandemic.
Here are a few examples of the vastly different registration duties during this pandemic:
- In Greely, Co., registration is conducted over the phone, but in Weld County, where Greely is located, registration is still being conducted at the Weld County Courthouse.
- In Mississippi, all of the state’s estimated 11,000 registrants must update their registration at one of only nine state Highway Patrol stations instead of the local Sheriff’s offices, placing a huge travel burden on some registrants.
- In Florida’s Palm Beach County, criminal registration is conducted over the phone, but sex offense registration is still being conducted in-person.
- Pinal County, Arizona and Hernando County, Florida, suspended all fingerprinting services except for sex offense registration.
- The Broward County(Fla.) courthouse closed to the public, moving registration to the Probation office in a different building a block away.
- In Texas, registrants cannot renew their driver’s license annually due to office, and must contact the local registration office to express their intent to follow this law; the burden to watch for reopening of agency offices falls on the registrant.
- Jasper County, Iowa is conducting registration by phone but will be conducting random compliance checks at the registrant’s home.
- Registrants in Caddo Parish, Louisiana must register at the Caddo Correctional Center and be subjected to a health screening before being allowed to register.
Reactions to sex offense registrations during COVID-19 on a state level have also varied immensely.
Hawaii Suspends In-Person Registration
Hawaii passed an executive order suspending in-person registration. In Oregon, registrants must contact their local police agency to see if they accept over-the-phone registration, and if their agency is unavailable, the registrant must contact the state police.
New Mexico granted local agencies the authority, but not the obligation, to conduct registration by phone. North Dakota allowed registration forms to be completed by phone. Ohio and Oklahoma have stated they were making no changes to in-person registration.
In Michigan, a federal judge placed a temporary restraining order on sex offense registration, but in California, lawsuits filed to suspend in-person registration have been rejected by the courts. Pennsylvania suspended all in-person registration; registrants can download a form on the state police website and send in the completed form by mail.
In the landmark Supreme Court decision of Smith v Doe (2003), the act of sex offense registration was upheld under John Robert’s oral argument that Alaska’s by-mail registration scheme was no more intrusive than a “Price Club” application.
The majority of sex-offender registrations in America are conducted in person, mostly in busy police stations or courthouses across the country. Many registrants are poor and rely on public transportation, and roughly a fifth of registrants are over the age of 55.
Many Registered Persons also have families of their own; thus, continuing to require in-person registration in a recipe for disaster.
Apathy towards Registered Persons has not been limited to natural disasters; registrants have been denied shelter during natural disasters or extremes in temperatures. But if law enforcement agencies are concerned enough about COVID-19 to suspend vehicle registrations, fingerprinting services, and accident reports, the same can be done for the sex offense registry.
The public sex offense registry was created in response to a handful of rare, stranger kidnappings. In reality, most sex crimes occur at home, by someone known to the victim and who is far more likely than not to have no prior criminal record.
Recidivism has always been low among those convicted of sex offenses (less than 1 percent annually), although the registry increases social ostracism which in turn could increase the likelihood of re-offense.
At least some police agencies have recognized the registry is not an “essential” service during this pandemic. I believe this service is unnecessary even in the best of times.
My own registration duty was performed this month in person.
The registration officer met me outside the Law Enforcement Center to have me sign a piece of paper. She was wearing a surgical mask, while all I had was an ill-fitting paper mask.
Within days of my in person registration, the nearby Smithfield meatpacking factory reported a major outbreak.
Is placing my life at risk worth a mere signature?
Derek W. Logue is a Nebraska registrant and activist for the rights of returning citizens, and founder of the sex offense education and reform website OnceFallen.com.