Alabama Sex Offender Registry Is Cruel and Unusual Punishment for Teenagers, Lawsuit Argues
Young people convicted as adults face a ‘life sentence’ of registry restrictions, attorneys say.
Southern Poverty Law Center and Juvenile Law Center asked a federal court today to strike down Alabama’s sex offender registry requirements for young people who were convicted in adult court. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, argues it is cruel and unusual punishment to impose mandatory lifetime registry restrictions for conduct that occurred when someone was still under age 18.
“Kids can’t smoke until they’re 18, they can’t drink until they’re 21,” said Jonathan Barry-Blocker, a staff attorney with Southern Poverty Law Center. “And yet we’re willing to subject them to sometimes lifelong consequences for criminal behavior.”
Those on Alabama’s sex offender registry are subjected to public humiliation and devastating restrictions, according to the lawsuit. They cannot live, volunteer, or work within 2,000 feet of a school or childcare facility. Their photos, names, and addresses are displayed on a website and on flyers, which are distributed to neighbors. Every three months, they must register in person and pay a $10 fee. Some on the registry are also prohibited from loitering within 500 feet of a school, childcare facility, playground, park, school bus stop, or university. More than 16,000 people must register as sex offenders in Alabama, according to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency website.
For those convicted of a sex crime in juvenile court, a judge holds a hearing to determine their “risk” to the community and whether to place them on the public registry. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency declined to comment on whether children should be listed on the registry.
In February, U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins called Alabama’s adult registry, “the most comprehensive and debilitating sex-offender scheme in the nation. No other state’s system comes close.” He struck down the state’s requirement that registrants’ driver’s licenses or state identification cards display “Criminal Sex Offender” and ruled that the requirements for reporting internet activity were unconstitutional. Under the statute, he wrote, registrants would have to inform law enforcement if, for example, they use a new computer terminal at a public library. Failure to do so could result in incarceration.
“Sex offenders are not second-class citizens,” Watkins wrote. “The Constitution protects their liberty and dignity just as it protects everyone else’s.”
There are approximately 250 registrants who were tried as adults for incidents that occurred when they were under the age of 18, according to the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of three Alabama residents.
One of those plaintiffs is Randy Pennington. In 1983, when he was 16, he was arrested for rape. He pleaded guilty, on the advice of his court-appointed attorney, to sexual abuse of a 16-year-old girl, according to the complaint. Pennington, who says the sex was consensual, was sentenced to one year in the county jail and three years on probation, according to court documents.
More than 20 years after his conviction, the sheriff’s office called to tell him there was a warrant out for his arrest for failing to register as a sex offender, according to the suit. Pennington had never been told he had to register. He was ordered to leave his home, which did not comply with the state’s residency restrictions, and convicted of failing to register, the suit alleges.
For about 30 years, Pennington has worked for an auto parts distributor, according to his attorneys. But when a new owner bought the company this summer, a background check revealed he was on the registry, according to the complaint. He was demoted. Much of his career was “totally erased,” he told The Appeal.
“I wound up with a life sentence,” said Pennington, now 52 and a grandfather.
Pennington fights depression daily, he said. In 2009, he planned to end his life, according to the complaint. “It just got to the point where I couldn’t handle it anymore,” Pennington told The Appeal. “Had it all ready when my wife actually came over that night and found me.”
The harm inflicted on young registrants “far outweighs any kind of public safety impact it purports to have,” said Riya Shah, managing director with Juvenile Law Center. “That label of sex offender, it communicates a very false message—that this person is dangerous and you need to protect yourself from them when it’s just not true,” she said.
Researchers with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that young people who have to register were four times more likely to report a recent suicide attempt than those who caused sexual harm but were not required to register. They were also five times more likely to be approached by an adult for sex, according to the study published last year, which examined the experiences of more than 250 people, ages 12 to 17. Adult registrants have reported unemployment, housing instability, and hopelessness, according to several studies.
Both adults and children who have been convicted of sex crimes are unlikely to commit another sexual offense, Shah noted. A 2009 study of children and teenagers who were convicted of sex crimes in South Carolina, for instance, found that the recidivism rate for new sex crimes was 2.5 percent.
The absurdity and cruelty of Alabama’s registry requirements for young people tried as adults is particularly apparent in the case of Herbert Stevens, according to the attorneys who filed the lawsuit. When he was 17, Herbert dated a 15-year-old girl. Her mother reported the relationship to the police, and he was convicted of second-degree rape. He was sentenced to boot camp and has been on the registry since 1998, according to the complaint.
Herbert and the girl he dated eventually married and had three children. “We’ve just always stuck together,” Candi Stevens, his wife, told The Appeal.
The registry, said Herbert, “took where we can live, how we live, the things we do in our life.” He has struggled to find work, causing him, he said, to turn to illegal activities. In 2007, he was convicted of possession and distribution of marijuana, and sentenced to 15 years, according to the complaint. “I couldn’t get no job,” he said. “I had to pay the rent, I had to feed my kids.”
According to the lawsuit, Herbert was released in 2013 but then incarcerated the following year for failing to register. He did not know the reporting requirements had changed in 2011; they now mandated in-person registration every three months, instead of twice a year. Herbert spent almost 10 months in the county jail.
Registrants convicted of certain sex crimes, including rape in the second degree, can ask the court for removal from the registry if force was not used, and the victim was 13 or older and less than five years younger than the accused. But Herbert has not yet petitioned the court, according to Candi. “We have never really had the money or the know how to get him removed from it,” she wrote in an email to The Appeal.
Removal from the registry, Candi said, would be “life-changing.” Herbert agrees. In addition to housing and employment restrictions, Herbert also faces obstacles to parenting. Herbert and Candi fear their children will be bullied because he is on the registry. He is not listed on school forms and avoids attending their events, according to the suit.
“You didn’t have no win no matter which way you go,” Herbert told The Appeal. “Everything I did, something kept holding me back. This kept holding me back. Registration.”
Juvenile Law Center is a sponsor of Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg’s documentary play on young people sentenced to life and her upcoming play on young people on the sex offender registry.