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Expert: Crime registries turn people into pariahs with ‘very little to lose’

New types of registries are being created around the country, despite research showing they don’t work.

A sign posted in Wapello, Iowa, in response to Megan's Law
Bill Whittaker/CC-BY-SA-3.0

Expert: Crime registries turn people into pariahs with ‘very little to lose’

New types of registries are being created around the country, despite research showing they don’t work.

On November 19, 2009, Brittany Passalacqua and her mother, Helen Buchel, were found brutally murdered, slashed multiple times with a boxcutter, in their Geneva, New York, home. Prosecutors charged John Brown, Buchel’s boyfriend at the time, with the two murders and won the case.

Buchel’s family members say they were unaware of Brown’s criminal history, which included a conviction for injuring his baby daughter in 2003. After their daughter’s murder, Buchel’s family began to organize for a new registry for New York State, one that would track people convicted of domestic violence-related felonies. Since 2011, the New York State Legislature has considered the proposal—called Brittany’s Law—and every year, including this one, it has failed to pass. Yet, Buchel’s family is undeterred.

While public sex offender registries are now required by federal law, other registries for people who have committed certain types of crimes—such as domestic violence or drug-related crimes—are on the rise. They are seen by some victims’ rights advocates as a way to protect the community. But, criminal justice advocates argue that the registries are just another way to assert control over people who have already served their time. With registries, the collateral consequences of incarceration can extend indefinitely.

The sex offender registry as we now know it was born of a law that required states to keep lists of people convicted of sex crimes against children. At the time, it was seen as a necessary tool for law enforcement and was part of a crime package signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Megan’s Law, which expanded the 1994 law to require registries open to the public, was signed in 1996. And 10 years later, President George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which codified and strengthened the registry requirement. (Adam Walsh’s father hosted “America’s Most Wanted.”)

Now, everyone could know who had been convicted of sex crimes, which includes not just sexual assaults, but sex with underage youth and viewing child pornography. People on the registries face a variety of restrictions: They must register regularly and cannot live in certain areas (usually within a certain distance of a school, playground, or daycare), and they cannot take certain jobs. Their pictures and addresses are available for anyone to find on the internet. Many on the registry can’t find housing and become homeless. Some have also been the victims of vigilantism.

Yet, several states seem intent on expanding registries to people found guilty of other crimes. At least five states (Montana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Illinois and Indiana) have violent offender registries; Ohio is contemplating one. Some states have them for meth (Tennessee and Kansas), others for drunken driving (Ohio’s has over 5,000 people on it). Florida has a “career offender” registry for people convicted of three violent crimes or who have been designated a “habitual violent felony offender” by a state court. Some jurisdictions require registration for narrower categories of offenses like violent crimes against children or animals.

Most of these registries don’t have the same types of restrictions as sex offender registries—they rarely limit where one lives or works, for instance—but they still hold consequences. For example, some require that registrants, even those convicted as teens, update their addresses every year and pay a fee or risk having their probation revoked. And, as with sex offender registries, those listed have their names, addresses, places of employment, and sometimes pictures posted online.

Like the registry proposed under Brittany’s Law, nearly all registries are inspired by horrific crimes. In Oklahoma, for example, the violent offender registry was born out of a man’s gruesome murder of his elderly neighbor; the victim’s children argued that they should have been able to find out that their mother lived next door to someone convicted of manslaughter.

But do these registries work? It’s not clear how many people altogether are in these databases, nor how regularly they are maintained and updated. Although there has been little analysis of these new registries, specifically, a growing body of research reveals that there’s little to no proof that sex offender registries protect people as envisioned. J.J. Prescott, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School who has studied sex offender registries, told The Appeal that, even though there is a modicum of evidence that public registries may have some deterrent effect on potential offenders, any benefit is more than offset by the increased recidivism risk from those who are publicly listed. Public registration exacerbates known criminogenic risk factors (like poor housing, unemployment, social isolation and poverty), and larger public registries appear to result in more rather than fewer sex crimes.

“Knowing whom an offender is or where an offender lives might give a few people a leg up at protecting themselves,” Prescott said. “But almost everyone on a public registry is transformed into a pariah and has very little to lose, and so is at higher risk of reoffending.”

Even Patty Wetterling, the mother of Jacob Wetterling, whose efforts after the 1989 abduction and death of her son helped lead to the sex offender registry, now says that she thinks the list is counterproductive. She told APM Reports, “Locking them up forever, labeling them, and not allowing them community support doesn’t work. I’ve turned 180 (degrees) from where I was.”

One group opposing Brittany’s Law was the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which surprised some of the bill’s proponents. The coalition issued a statement arguing that domestic violence registries offer a “false sense of security” and that such registries “are reactionary rather than preventative” because they ignore the complex psychology behind domestic abuse. Prescott agrees, pointing out that in most cases, domestic violence victims don’t need more information about abusers, but rather help escaping dangerous situations.

But, perhaps the most significant strike against registries is the damage they do to the people on them, who have done their prison time and are trying to reintegrate into society. Vincent Brumley was put on a registry after being released in 2015 from an Illinois prison where he served time for his participation in a kidnapping and homicide.“That’s all they see me as,” he said in a 2016 interview. “They don’t know what I was convicted of, or if I was guilty. I did my time. Why hold me back?”

Pretrial Detainees Are Being Billed For Their Stay in Jail

In jurisdictions across the country, people incarcerated before they've ever been convicted of a crime are charged a daily fee just for sitting in jail—and several courts have ruled that the practice is legal.

Shelby County Justice Center in Memphis
Raymond Boyd/Getty

Pretrial Detainees Are Being Billed For Their Stay in Jail

In jurisdictions across the country, people incarcerated before they've ever been convicted of a crime are charged a daily fee just for sitting in jail—and several courts have ruled that the practice is legal.

On any given night, it is estimated that nearly half a million people who haven’t been convicted of a crime are sleeping in local jails. The vast majority remain behind bars because they can’t afford to pay bail.

But in many parts of the country, pretrial detainees are also charged a daily fee. In these jurisdictions, being too poor to get out of jail doesn’t just mean weeks or months of incarceration before their case is adjudicated—it can also mean hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees ostensibly meant to defray their detention costs. Of the criminal justice system’s many fees, pretrial jail fees are among the most pernicious because they are overwhelmingly billed to poor defendants, creating a cycle of debt that can lead to more jail time.

Policies regarding jail fees—sometimes referred to as “pay to stay”—vary from state to state and even across counties. Some fees are instituted by state law. In Virginia, local authorities are allowed to charge detainees up to $3 per day; in North Carolina, fees are set at $10 per day; in Kentucky, people can be charged up to $50.

In other jurisdictions, local governments decide how to charge pretrial detainees. In Shelby County, Tennessee’s largest and most populous county that includes Memphis, people are charged $38 per day while they await trial.

Such fees are often waived or refunded if a defendant’s charges are dismissed or if they are acquitted at trial. Judges can also waive the fees if they determine that a defendant will be unable to pay them. Still, pretrial jail fees are assessed by the millions every year.

Nashville recently eliminated its $44-per-day fee, a move led led by Metro Council Member Freddie O’Connell who called it a “non-sentenced form of financial punishment.” The city’s pretrial fees were both punitive and hardly worth the trouble in financial terms. During a three-year period ending in 2017, Nashville collected just $533,873.42 of the $11,411,448.55 in pretrial jail fees billed to defendants. So, the city simply saddled thousands of low-income residents with debt while collecting little in the way of revenue. And the fees led to extraordinarily damaging consequences for pretrial detainees, such as the suspension or revocation of their driver’s licenses. (That won’t happen anymore in Tennessee. On July 2,  a federal judge ruled that the state’s law revoking driver’s licenses from people who can’t pay court costs is unconstitutional.)

Worse, in many states, pay-to-stay fees are taken out of a prisoner’s commissary account—or the fees are so significant that upon release detainees are left with a large bill.

Pretrial jail fees have been challenged on the basis that they punish those who have been charged but not convicted of a crime, although several courts have upheld them as constitutional. In 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld Virginia’s pay-to-stay fee, ruling that it didn’t constitute punishment violating a pretrial detainee’s due process rights. Similarly, in 2013, a U.S. District Court judge in Wisconsin ruled that Brown County’s $20-per-day fee did not violate the due process rights of a man who racked up $9,160 in fees between his initial booking until his transfer to the state prison system.

“We have had an expanded criminal justice system over the last 25 years and governments have funded mostly police and prosecutors,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, “[but] they they have not funded in equal amounts jails, courts or public defenders. So we now have a situation in which the criminal justice system as a whole is crumbling under the pressure of volume without resources. The only silver-lining in that is that because there aren’t really additional resources, the only option is to shrink the system.”

Burdeen adds that pretrial jail fees are just one part of a constellation of fines and fees faced by people ensnared in the criminal justice system. Criminal defendants, she says, can be charged for booking, their stay in jail, medical care, even the cost of a public defender. “If you’re trying to fund the local criminal justice system on the backs of the people who are using it, they’re not voluntary users,” she says. “These are people coerced into the system through tickets or traffic stops or, yes, arrests. But we also know that we’re not arresting people in gated communities at the same rate we’re arresting people in poor neighborhoods. So you’re trying to fund the criminal justice system on the backs of the people who are least likely to be able to afford it.”

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A Distressed Man Came to a Police Station Looking for Help. Hours Later, He Was In a Coma.

Earl McNeil’s family is demanding answers from the National City, California, police department.

Earl McNeil in an undated photograph

A Distressed Man Came to a Police Station Looking for Help. Hours Later, He Was In a Coma.

Earl McNeil’s family is demanding answers from the National City, California, police department.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, May 26, Earl McNeil, a 40-year-old African American man with a history of mental health issues, walked up to the telephone attached to the front of the police department building in National City, California. According to police, McNeil told the dispatchers on the other end of the phone that he was high, had a warrant out for his arrest, and “wanted to kill Jesus.”

The National City Police Department is housed in an imposing concrete building on National City Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of the low-income, predominantly Latinx city that sits just to the south of San Diego, and a little more than 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. It was a few miles from where McNeil had been living, according to his relatives. Prompted by the conversation with dispatchers, officers met McNeil outside the police station, and soon after arrested him on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs.

When McNeil was taken out of the station several hours later, he was secured in the stiff nylon blanket and restraints known by police officers as the “WRAP.” Officers put him in the back of a police car to check him into San Diego Central Jail for processing. But by the time he arrived at the jail, McNeil was in medical distress, and he died 16 days later.

His death has sparked an outcry from family members and community activists who have demanded more information from the police about the circumstances of his death.

An unexplained death

McNeil’s family is desperate for answers about what happened on May 26. According to a spokesperson from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, McNeil was “rejected” for booking by the sheriff’s department, and remained in the custody of the police department. “The Sheriff’s Department cannot comment on what may or may not have transpired while he was in the custody of NCPD,” the spokesperson told The Appeal. After he was rejected by central booking, paramedics were called to assist him—and McNeil lost consciousness soon after they arrived, according to a statement released by the police department.

The red courtesy phone outside the National City Police Department that police said McNeil used to contact them
Credit: Max Rivlin-Nadler

But the police have released limited details about the incident, despite a growing public outcry—no body camera footage, no names of officers involved in McNeil’s arrest, no surveillance footage from the precinct itself. The results of McNeil’s autopsy have yet to be released to the family, although the police chief told the San Diego Union-Tribune that preliminary information from investigators present during the autopsy found that there was no trauma on McNeil’s body.

McNeil’s family isn’t so sure. Photos they took while he was in the hospital show bruises to his head and lacerations to his body that they believe were caused at some point during the hours he was in National City police custody.

In the statement released in the days following McNeil’s death, the police said that McNeil was “intentionally hurting himself” during the trip to the county jail, despite being confined to the WRAP. The police did not respond directly to the family’s allegations or to a request for comment from The Appeal.

Tammy Davis, McNeil’s aunt, said she had to leave a meeting with the police chief, Manuel Rodriguez, because he kept smiling, and he refused to apologize for or elaborate on what happened to McNeil when he was in custody.

“There was a smile on the chief’s face and he was shaking his head. Every question we asked, he couldn’t give an answer,” Davis said. “He had a smile on his face from the time we started the meeting to the time we left the meeting.” Rodriguez did not respond to requests for comment.

At a City Council meeting on June 19, Rodriguez listened to comments from community members with a visible smirk on his face, enraging advocates and McNeil’s family members (Rodriguez disputes that he was smirking and instead says he was just trying to keep a “calm” face.) At the same City Council meeting, Tasha Williamson, a community activist who has been working with the McNeil family, was arrested after she went over her allotted speaking time and refused to leave the podium.

She said the police’s assertion that he hurt himself is ridiculous. “I was horrified by their statements because we had actually gone to the hospital the day they pulled the plug and saw his body,” Williamson said. She wants to know why they won’t release footage from his time in custody. It just feels like a cover-up. It feels like they think we’ll go away.”

All body camera footage captured by the National City police is accessible by the San Diego district attorney’s office. The police department’s policy for officer-involved shootings is not to release the video “until the district attorney’s independent review of the incident has been completed and the findings have been provided to the law enforcement agency involved.” The police department could not confirm if the same policy applies to surveillance footage, or whether there’s a different policy for incidents involving arrestees injured while in custody.

Last month in Sacramento, police released body camera video of a man who died in police custody just a week after his death, and released extensive surveillance footage within the month.

Police Chief Manuel Rodriguez (left) sits in front of protesters minutes before a National City City Council meeting on Tuesday.
Credit: Max Rivlin-Nadler

On Tuesday, more than a month after McNeil’s death, protesters interrupted another City Council meeting and questioned Rodriguez directly after the council announced a recess. Amid chants of “release the tapes,” Rodriguez defended his department’s actions, saying the police still “have the trust of the community,” and that the investigation was ongoing.

Two members of the National City City Council, Mona Rios and Alejandra Sotelo-Solis, refused to recess with the rest of the council to protest the city’s failure to release the footage to the community. The following day, protesters flooded the chambers again and a vote to put the investigation on the agenda failed by a vote of 2-2.

Who was Earl McNeil?

Born in 1977, Earl McNeil was raised in San Diego. He was close with his family, Davis, his aunt told The Appeal. “He was always the man of the hour,” she said. Davis raised McNeil after his mother died when he was 12. She said he liked to play cards and would help put up gazebos for family barbecues.

According to his aunt, those good times were mixed with episodes of mental distress, during which he would often contact local police (although she said he had always contacted the San Diego Police Department, not National City’s). He had been diagnosed as bipolar at a young age, she said, and would need to be placed in psychiatric care for periods of time while the manic episodes passed. He had come to rely on local police and EMTs who were familiar with his mental health situation, she explained, to steer him into care, not custody.

But McNeil also maintained contacts with local law enforcement for other reasons. For years, The Appeal has learned, he was a jailhouse informant for the San Diego district attorney’s office regarding a high-profile 2003 double homicide that resulted in a San Diego man named James Carter receiving multiple life sentences in 2011. The San Diego DA’s office wrote in court filings that Carter and McNeil belonged to the same gang in the early 2000s. (McNeil’s family declined to address whether they knew he was an informant.)

A photo of McNeil in the hospital in the days after his interaction with the National City Police Department that was blown up into a poster for Tuesday's protest
Max Rivlin-Nadler

In 2004, according to court documents, McNeil shared information about the murders with investigators while he was at the same jail as Carter, who had been booked on an unrelated charge. During the interview, McNeil acknowledges that he had no firsthand knowledge about the murders and says that his information came from a conversation he had with Carter after the shooting and before either of them were incarcerated. During the 2011 trial, McNeil testified about Carter for a full day, despite objections by the defense that he had given conflicting statements to investigators about what he knew. He later recanted his testimony to a private investigator working on behalf of Carter’s family. In an audio clip played for The Appeal, a man who identifies himself as McNeil claims he lied on the witness stand.

“I would tell them I was lying. I lied,” McNeil says on the recording. “I was coerced. I was in a pretty desperate situation. Prison is crazy, man.”

San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan was a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office at the time of the Carter prosecution and the use of McNeil as a jailhouse informant. Her office declined to comment on whether McNeil was an informant. According to a spokesperson, the office will review the results of the police investigation once it is complete.  

Over the past six months, eight officer-involved cases have been resolved by the DA’s office, and Stephan has cleared police officers in all of them, including the killing of Jonathon Coronel, an unarmed 24-year-old who officials say was shot at 16 times after he removed his shirt and wrapped it around his hand during a confrontation with police.

McNeil’s family has retained a lawyer and is considering its next steps. “Right now I don’t trust the police department,” Davis said. “They haven’t been in touch with me, neither the chief or the mayor. We’re just in the dark right now.”

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