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Why Sex Offender Registries Keep Growing Even as Sexual Violence Rates Fall

Lists that include out-of-state visitors are inflating the numbers and keeping fear at a boil.

A map published by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC)

Why Sex Offender Registries Keep Growing Even as Sexual Violence Rates Fall

Lists that include out-of-state visitors are inflating the numbers and keeping fear at a boil.


Quentin (not his real name) was convicted eight years ago of child pornography possession in Florida. He served his time and has since moved to another state. But his sentence required his photo and other personal details to appear on Florida’s sex offender registry, and there they will stay for the rest of his life, even if he never sets foot in the state again.

The state’s registry is padded with thousands of Quentins, people who don’t live in Florida. Under a change to state law passed this spring, there will soon be more: Starting July 1, out-of-state registrants who visit for at least three days (down from five) must go to a sheriff’s office to have their personal details added to Florida’s list. If they don’t, they face a third-degree felony.

Rules like that aren’t unique—22 other states keep out-of-state visitors on their registries for life, according to a study released last November. It’s one reason state lists misrepresent the actual number of people with sex-crime records living in communities. As already-bloated lists keep ballooning, they feed the impression of a growing population of dangerous people who require ever-more-extreme laws to monitor and control.

On May 30, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) released its latest nationwide count of names on state sex offender registries. For the first time ever, the total was more than 900,000. NCMEC spokesperson Staca Shehan told The Appeal the organization doesn’t share data on growth trends because changes in state laws and other anomalies can make it difficult to accurately compare the data across years. But calculations by William Dobbs of Dobbs Wire, who tracks sex-offender registry developments nationwide, show a 3 percent jump in the nationwide number in the last six months. That’s slightly faster than in the past; increases have fluctuated between about 3 and 5 percent annually since 2007. Even if the growth rate returns to that historical average, by 2021 more than a million names will be on registries.

Many of those entries are duplicates like Quentin or represent people who are not actually part of a state’s population for some other reason. In a 2014 study in the journal Crime & Delinquency, a research team found that in the 42 states and two territories studied, 19 percent of those on registries were still behind bars, 9 percent lived out of state, and 3 percent had been deported. Of Florida’s 55,000 registrants at the time, more than 31,000 were in one of those three categories. “It’s a concern of ours,” Shehan said of problems with the count. She says NCMEC has no way of knowing how often an offender shows up on multiple state lists. So that means then there’s duplicated offenders in our grand total,” she said. “And we have no way of knowing how often that happens.”

Even if the growth rate returns to that historical average, by 2021 more than a million names will be on registries.

Dobbs, an adviser to the Sex Offense Litigation and Policy Resource Center affiliated with the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, says the inaccuracies are symptoms of a malignant logic at the heart of registries: that people who have served their time should be put on public lists because of the ineffable risk of what they might do in the future. Problems with registries can’t be fixed, he says, because the concept itself is a “broken” one. “It turns people into suspects foreveror at least as long as they’re on it,” he said. “The politicians have created this giant naming-and-shaming train and are fueling it with fear.”

One of Quentin’s cousins is getting married in October and invited him to be in the wedding in Florida, says Quentin’s mother. But to participate in the various events, he would need to stay more than three days—meaning a trip to the local sheriff’s office to get a new photo taken and have the address where he’s staying and the license plates of any cars he will drive added to Florida’s public registry. So Quentin is skipping the wedding.  

Even if registry counts are inflated, it’s likely that the real number of registrants is rising as state lists scoop up an ever-broader swath of the population. One reason: New state laws governing who must register are typically applied retroactively to cover those who offended before the laws passed.

(Retroactive punishment is banned by the U.S. Constitution, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that being placed on a registry doesn’t count as punishment. Since then, as evidence has emerged that registration is indeed punitive, the retroactive provisions of state sex-offense laws are being struck down: Several courts have ruled since 2016 that they violate the Constitution’s ban.)  

Under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, passed in 2006, states have been required to expand their registries to cover people convicted of a broader set of crimes. The number on Wyoming’s registry in 2011, for instance, rose to 1,450 from 125 after the state passed legislation compliant with the act that required children and teens to be registered. As other states try to comply by passing new laws, additional categories of people get put on their registries, Shehan says.

And sex-offense laws trigger long registration periods, making entry onto the list mostly a one-way door. In 19 states, sex offender registration lasts for life for adults; in 16 others, it’s 15 to 30 years; and in another 14, it’s a minimum of 10 years, according to the Restoration of Rights Project run by the Collateral Consequences Resource Center and its partner organizations.

NCMEC’s steadily inflating number is catnip for those who traffic in evergreen scare stories. One website advises parents to use the map in deciding where to move. States with high per-capita sex offender populations might not be a good choice, it implies. NCMEC itself may feed those fears with its marketing: On its website, photos of missing kids are adjacent to the link to its sex offender tracking map.

But research shows that sex-offender maps have almost nothing to do with protecting children. Nearly all sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone not on a registry; first-time offenders commit north of 90 percent of new sex crimes, according to studies in New York and Minnesota. Most sexual violence victims know their perpetrators—86 percent in a Bureau of Justice Statistics study published in 2000. And those with a sexual offense on their record have low sex-crime reoffense rates: 12 percent on average, according to a definitive 2014 meta-analysis of 21 other studies. Those same researchers found that reoffense risk declines the longer that someone lives in the community crime-free. For those who hadn’t reoffended by 10 years after an initial sexual offense, their risk of committing a new sex crime was 1 to 5 percent—a rate comparable to ex-offenders with no history of sex crime.

Sex-offense laws trigger long registration periods, making entry onto the list mostly a one-way door.

All of that might explain why the registry count and sex-crime rates are traveling in opposite directions. Multiple studies show rates of sexual violence falling significantly after the early 1990s. “I care about [the inflated count] from a policy perspective because it keeps people in fear,” said Alissa Ackerman, a California State University, Fullerton criminologist who was part of the 2014 Crime & Delinquency research team and has co-authored numerous studies of sexual-offense issues. “It keeps them wanting legislation—you know, we have to do something. … It’s maps like this and propaganda like this that keep people feeling that way.”

Ackerman says rather than expanding the list, more resources should be focused on sexual-violence prevention programs and on mental health services and treatment for people who have experienced and committed sexual abuse. “That’s not where we’re putting our money,” she said. “These policies don’t work—let’s focus on something that does work.”

Shehan says NCMEC’s map isn’t intended to scare people. The group’s prevention education materials make clear the danger of sexual abuse committed by a stranger on a registry is small, she says. But she acknowledges that message could be clearer on the map itself. “We’ve taken several precautions and made adaptations to the map in the past,” she said. “That’s one I can definitely add to the list of considerations.”

Austin Cops Said They Shot A Man Who Fired On Them--But It Turns Out He Didn't Fire A Shot

Lawrence Parrish faces charges including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and remains jailed on $500,000 bond even though the Austin police admitted he never shot at them.

An Austin Police unit parked on a city street while an officer is on traffic duty.
Getty/OnFokus

Austin Cops Said They Shot A Man Who Fired On Them--But It Turns Out He Didn't Fire A Shot

Lawrence Parrish faces charges including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and remains jailed on $500,000 bond even though the Austin police admitted he never shot at them.


On the night of April 7, 2017, the roommate of Austin, Texas, resident Lawrence Parrish called 911 to report that Parrish was sitting in the street with a gun. She said that Parrish, then 31, had been acting strange all day and speculated that he might be on drugs. By the time police arrived, Parrish  had gone back inside his home. Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said Parrish refused to come out for a “period of time,” which prompted officers to call a SWAT team.

Police say Parrish eventually emerged from the house holding a .40-caliber Hi-Point rifle. They initially claimed that he had fired at the officers, which prompted them to shoot back.

Four officers shot at Parrish. Parrish’s brother, Cluren Williams, says he was shot over nine times, although authorities have not confirmed this. He was rushed to a nearby hospital and, according to friends and family, two fingers had to be amputated. Parrish was booked into the Travis County Correctional Complex by proxy while recovering from his injuries. Williams also claims that Parrish’s family was not allowed to visit him in the hospital after he was shot. “They won’t give us any access, we’re not getting any logical explanation, we’re not getting any good reasoning why the mother can’t even see him. It’s just ridiculous,” he told KXAN-TV.

According to an April 8 arrest affidavit, one of the police officers claimed he saw Parrish “raise the rifle toward his direction,” before firing two rounds at him. The officer then ducked to avoid gunfire, but when he heard additional shots, he believed that they were coming from Parrish. The officers who shot at Parrish were put on administrative leave the week after the shooting, while Internal Affairs and the Austin Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit conducted inquiries on the incident as part of protocol.

But just a few days after Parrish was shot by the police, Manley changed course.  “We now believe, based on where we are at in the investigation, that he did not fire,” he said. “Even though our officers that night at the scene believed that he had, in fact, fired the weapon.”  

Despite the admission from the police that Parrish did not shoot at them, Parrish’s $500,000 bond was not reduced, and then charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated assault against a public servant, and possession of a controlled substance remained unchanged. Manley has stated that these charges are still appropriate because Parrish brandished a weapon in a threatening manner. Advocates in Austin disagree; on June 6, the grassroots criminal justice reform group Austin Justice Coalition started a fundraiser to bail Parrish out.

Williams told The Appeal that his brother was denied a bond reduction three times. He also said that he has obtained video from the night of the incident that contradicts police claims and that he’s eager to present that evidence when Parrish’s case finally goes before a judge (jury selection in the case begins on July 12).

Parrish has remained behind bars in a year where the Austin Police Department struggles with police shootings. In 2018, five suspects have been shot by its officers. Only one of those who was shot survived.

 

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The Only Winners In California's Fines and Fees System Are Private Debt Collectors

San Francisco just became the first city in the nation to stop charging court fines and fees, but the rest of the state has a long way to go.

A San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic officer issues a ticket for an illegally parked car.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Only Winners In California's Fines and Fees System Are Private Debt Collectors

San Francisco just became the first city in the nation to stop charging court fines and fees, but the rest of the state has a long way to go.


Kim Lacey couldn’t understand how unpaid traffic tickets had cost her so much. Over the last decade, Lacey has had her wages garnished, her tax returns seized, her credit score ruined, and her driver’s license suspended because of outstanding court fines and fees. She has paid approximately $5,400 to Alameda County, California, where she lives, since she received her first ticket in 2008, she told The Appeal. And she sees no end in sight from the hounding of a system which has emotionally and financially bled her dry.

Fines and fees create a “lose-lose scenario” both for counties and their residents, according to a report released in May by the California Reinvestment Coalition (CRC). The system places a disproportionate burden on the poor, and then fails to recoup most of the money it seeks. For example, over the course of six years, San Francisco was able to collect only 17 percent of the $15 million it demanded in court debt.

But yesterday, the city officially became the first in the nation to stop charging people discretionary criminal justice fines and fees. Some of the charges it is eliminating are for probation, booking, restitution, and costs for alcohol testing and participation in monitoring and home detention programs. These costs, often hundreds or thousands of dollars, historically created an additional stumbling block for anyone coming out of jail or prison.

“These financial burdens frequently hit individuals at the precise moment they are trying to turn their lives around,” San Francisco’s ordinance reads.

But Californians in other parts of the state, like Lacey, are still subjected to 684 criminal justice financial penalties, according to the CRC report. Most of these are fines intended to be punitive, like a speeding ticket. Fifty-seven are fees, user charges tacked on to help fund the courts. These debts can pile up quickly; a $100 ticket for running a red light in California, for example, comes with an additional $390 in fees.

As time passes, interest compounds and late-payment fees get added to delinquent debt, making it even harder for those who fall behind to pay  what they owe.

But if communities and residents aren’t benefiting from the current arrangement, who is? As it stands, said Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, the system is giving incentives for private firms to profit off poor communities. Many California counties contract with private debt collection agencies.

“In California, [debt collection agencies] are getting commissions of 12 to 18 percent, which is on top of debt we don’t even know if people can afford to pay,” Weiss said.

And that’s just for newly delinquent debt. “Commission fees encourage private debt collectors to collect on debt over five years old, and to allow debt to age so that they can collect on it later and receive higher commission fees,” according to the CRC report. Once the delinquent debt has aged over five years, collectors’ commission fees can go up to nearly 26 percent.  

Many private collection agencies are authorized by the state to pay themselves back for operating costs before they distribute money to state and local governments. According to the report, between 2013 and 2014, such costs amounted to $114 million, or 6 percent of the total fine and fee revenue.  

Because debt collection agencies are a third party separate from the courts, people’s records often fall through the cracks. According to her attorney, Lacey ended up receiving a refund of nearly $800 because, with the help of the East Bay Community Law Center, she was able to show the court that Alliance One—the collection agency used by the Alameda County Court—had been asking for payments on tickets Lacey had already paid.

Furthermore, collection agencies are not bound by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which protects consumers from various forms of threat and harassment, because court debts are considered “involuntary.” As a result of this loophole, said Miguel Soto, an attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center, “We’ve had clients tell us that the [debt collector] they’re dealing with is threatening them with violence, imprisonment, or, in some occasions, deportation.”

Because debt collection agencies are allowed to report unpaid debt to credit bureaus, court debt can also ruin a person’s credit score, grievously impacting his or her ability to rent a home or secure a student loan. This is a voluntary action, and, in its report, the CRC strongly advises that counties prevent agencies from taking it.

“How is it that a traffic ticket affects your credit?” asked Lacey. Because of her court debt, she said, “I can’t buy a house, I can’t go nowhere—I’m stuck in the ’hood. I can’t even leave because all the money I get, they take it.”

Said Weiss: “We’re taking something not meant to be punitive and punishing [people] for their poverty.”

“If there were an effective cost-benefit analysis for counties on these fines and fees, the costs would far outweigh the benefits,” said Nancy Fishman, a project director at the Vera Institute of Justice. Most counties, Fishman said, don’t pay close attention to how much money they actually make off of fines and fees. In California, court-ordered debt collected by private agencies makes up only 0.001 to 0.46 percent of a county’s total revenue. In New Orleans, the cost of incarcerating people who could not pay bail, fines, or fees was nearly $2 million more than the amount that court debt brought in. Counties see money coming in, but do not think about the cost of obtaining it—or how much remains uncollected because residents are unable to pay.

According to Weiss, almost every state in the country has increased its fines and fees over the last five years; especially after the 2008 recession, such charges were seen as an ideal way to generate revenue. In California, a $155 charge for a stop violation in 2005 became a $283 charge in 2015. In both years, the base fine was $35.  

“We have an allergy to taxes, and there are few ways municipalities can raise money: taxes, utilities, and fines and fees,” Weiss said. “Fines and fees is the most regressive way, but often happens without a lot of the public weighing in, understanding, or being concerned. ” She pointed out that fines and fees are most frequently handed out to poor communities that don’t have political or monetary clout, and thus have become an ideal way for a county government to raise money without resistance.

“I feel like it affects, mostly—honestly—Black people and Mexicans,” said Lacey, who is Black. “We struggle like crazy and we don’t know nothing about the system, so they keep us in the system.”

According to the CRC report, 64 percent of people arrested and subsequently subjected to fines and fees in California are people of color. San Francisco made note of this point in its ordinance, which states, “Indeed, the burden of these fines and fees falls heaviest on the African-American community, which accounts for less than 6% of the population of San Francisco, but makes up over half the population in the county jail.”

Fishman thinks it is impractical to demand that those who pass through the criminal justice system should be responsible for paying for it. “If a lot of the folks being charged are poor people and don’t have the money,” she said, “charging them all these fines and fees is 1) not going to get you the money you need and 2) is going to pull these people further into the justice system and make it that much harder for them to become contributing members of that community.”  

Though states control most of the fines and fees levied in their courts, counties still hold considerable power to reduce the burden on their residents: Many fines and fees are discretionary, issued at the local level. Weiss is hopeful that San Francisco’s move is indicative of a new wave of reform. Within the last year, both California and Mississippi have stopped suspending driver’s licenses for those who have not paid fines. In 2017, Philadelphia stopped using cost and care fees for juveniles.

Fishman, however, is less optimistic. “We’re generally not in a world where we can say ‘As goes San Francisco so goes the nation,’” she said. “Some of the places that are struggling the most with this, both in terms of how to pay for bloated justice systems and how to deal with the fact that most of the people in the community are too poor to pay, are not San Francisco.”

Instead, said Fishman, in smaller, especially more rural towns, fines and fees “fit in still with their sense of justice, and there’s a sense that there aren’t other resources. If you don’t have a big tax base to support your justice system, you’re going to look for whatever resources you can find—even if they’re not the best ones to try.” Even so, she said, such counties “are trying to get blood from a turnip.”

“If folks could pay the first small fee, they would,” said Soto, the attorney. “Honestly, the majority of folks [passing through the system] are already hand to mouth. Getting hit with another $40 or $50 right now is not something they can plausibly do. And because they can’t pay that, the penalty is they have to pay more … at some point, you’re just trapped.”

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