Lifetime Sex-Offender Registration for Kids

Do you think sex-offender registration is punishment?

What if it’s for life?

What if it’s for a 12-year-old boy?

Last week, the California Court of Appeal ruled that it’s not punishment to call a kid a sex offender for life because of something he did when he was twelve years old.

According to the court, the boy’s early years were marked by extreme neglect and abuse. He was taken from his mother at age five and shunted from one foster home to another until he was adopted.

Then, when he was twelve, he was processed in juvenile court for pushing a five-year-old boy to the ground and committing a lewd act on him. He was put on probation and ordered to enroll in sex-offender treatment.

After that, he was found to have violated his probation three times: once for hanging out with other minors without adult supervision; once for touching his adoptive sister’s breast, after which he was sent to a group home; and once more for grabbing a boy’s butt there.

At that point, the court put him in juvie and ordered him to register as a sex offender. In California, that meant he would have to register as one for the rest of his life. Wherever he moved, he would have to register with the city police or the county sheriff. If he went to college, he would have to register there, too. Even if he never moved, he would have to register again every year within five days of his birthday.

He appealed on the ground that lifetime registration for kids was cruel and unusual punishment. He also argued that it hindered public safety rather than helped it because it hurt a kid’s chance to live a normal life. Even the juvenile court had acknowledged that it “mess[ed] up the rest of their lives by hanging this tag on them.” Of course, the same could be said for adults, as we’ve explained before.

But the appellate court held that it wasn’t even punishment, let alone cruel and unusual punishment. The court relied on prior cases by the California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court to that effect. Although those cases didn’t address the question of kids specifically, this court wasn’t going to be the first to carve out an exception for them.

No Correlation Between Drug War and Use

According to an independent, well-regarded think tank, there is statistically no reason to think that we can reduce drug abuse by locking more people up.

The nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts spelled it out in a letter this summer to a federal commission that’s looking at ways to combat the widespread problem of opioid abuse.

Its study, which drew on data from the federal government and all fifty states, found no statistically-significant relationship between a state’s rate of incarceration and its rate of drug use, drug arrests, or overdose deaths.

Put another way, locking up more people didn’t correlate with lower rates of drug use, drug arrests, or overdose deaths. These findings held even when the study controlled for race, income, unemployment, and education. The arrest and incarceration rates came from state corrections departments and the U.S. Justice Department. The drug-usage rates came from an annual, national survey funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The overdose-death rates came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The demographic data came from the U.S. Census Bureau, and the income and unemployment data came from the U.S. Labor Department.

The more effective response to opioid abuse, says the letter, is a combination of law enforcement to curb drug trafficking; sentencing alternatives to divert nonviolent people from costly imprisonment; treatment to reduce addiction; and prevention efforts like prescription-drug monitoring programs, which we wrote about last week.

The Restoration of Rights Project

Have you ever been arrested? Do you have a prior conviction?

Do you wonder whether you can clean up your record and how that affects you, if at all?

Start here. It’s called the Restoration of Rights Project, and it looks at the law in every state for restoring your rights and status after an arrest or conviction. It covers federal law, too.

For each state, the Project compiles answers to these questions:

  1. Whether and how you can seal, expunge, or dismiss your arrest or conviction.
  2. Whether and how you can restore your civil rights, like the right to vote.
  3. Whether and how your state’s laws affect your chance of landing a job or license, losing one, or getting it back.
  4. Whether your state has a regular process to apply for a pardon and how often it grants one.
  5. Whether and how you can stop having to register as a sex offender.

It’s a great resource not just for lawyers and the courts but for, in its words, “the millions of Americans with a criminal record who are seeking to put their past behind them.”

The Modern Public Square

This week brought us another unanimous U.S. Supreme Court case that’s arguably more important because it concerned the First Amendment.

The issue was a North Carolina law that made it a felony for registered sex offenders to use any social-networking site that lets minors join. So to be clear, that’s any social-media site, period, that lets minors join. That meant Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or pretty much any other social-media site. The law was even broad enough to include websites like Amazon, WebMD, and the Washington Post. So you almost couldn’t use the Internet.

The defendant was one of more than 1,000 people who’ve been prosecuted under the law. In 2002, when he was 21 years old, he had sex with a 13-year-old girl, and he was charged with it. He pleaded guilty to it and registered as a sex offender. Then the law passed in 2008.

In 2010, he happened to get a traffic ticket dismissed in court, whereupon he logged on to Facebook and posted this to his timeline: “Man God is Good! How about I got so much favor they dismissed the ticket before court even started? No fine, no court cost, no nothing spent … Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!”

He was indicted for that.

He moved to dismiss on the ground that the law violated the First Amendment, but the trial court denied it. He was convicted at trial and given a suspended prison sentence.

On appeal, the state courts duked it out. The court of appeals agreed with the guy, finding that the law violated the First Amendment. But the state supreme court reversed, finding the law “constitutional in all respects.”

Finally, the federal high court unanimously struck down the law because it plainly applied to websites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter among others. Facebook itself had 1.79 billion active users—or three times the population of North America.

The Court called these sites “integral to the fabric of our modern society and culture.” They had become our main sources for sharing current events, participating in the public square, and exploring human thought and knowledge. To foreclose access to them was to foreclose the legitimate exercise of First-Amendment rights.

Yes, a state could pass specific, narrowly-tailored laws that regulate the type of conduct that portends crime, like contacting a minor or using a website to gather information about one.

But it couldn’t just cut people off from the public square.

Judge Not, Lest We Be Judged

If you’re still not sold on the power of redemption, I may not be able to sway you.

But consider this guy. He committed a carjacking at 16 and spent eight years in prison for it. Today, at 35, he has a wife, two bouncy sons, and now, a law degree from Yale. He just graduated last month. I guess it’s good we didn’t throw away the key.

His story reminded me of three quotes I saw recently. They each spoke to why we should treat people humanely in our justice system. I saw them in the email signature of a defense lawyer in Texas, and while he and I have never met, I think they say something positive about him, too. If you need a lawyer in his neck of the woods, look him up.

I especially liked how the quotes were attributed to three very different people. An itinerant lawyer and activist. An influential computer scientist. An acclaimed writer and novelist.

Three different walks of life, but they seemed to agree on some things.

  1. Freedom is not worth having if it doesn’t include the freedom to make mistakes.”
  2. “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”
  3. “Sometimes you make choices in life and sometimes the choices make you.”

Great quotes, all. You live and breathe long enough, you know them to be true.

A Model Penal Code for the 21st Century

Charging decisions, which we wrote about last week, matter for many reasons. They drive plea bargains, and they affect sentencing. You file a felony, for example, so that the guy will plead to a misdemeanor without giving you much trouble. It happens all the time.

Bad charging decisions, though, don’t just cause wrongful convictions or unjust sentences.

They cause other consequences that continue to torment you after you’ve served your sentence. Your actual sentence may include your jail or prison time, the fines you must pay, or the terms of probation you must follow. You did the crime so you should do the time and pay the fine, right? Okay, but then even after you do, you still may not be able to cast a vote, land a job, rent a home, hold a license, or get a loan. These are the so-called collateral consequences of a conviction.

But the future may be brighter.

Last week, the American Law Institute approved major changes to the Model Penal Code to address these consequences. The ALI is the leading scholarly body that aims to clarify, modernize, and otherwise improve American law. The Model Penal Code is its seminal work in the area of criminal law. It doesn’t have the force of law by itself, but it’s influential. Most states have used it in passing their own laws, and courts cite to it often.

The new provisions would require you to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that a collateral consequence of your conviction imposes a heavy burden on your ability to rejoin society and that public safety doesn’t need you to suffer it.

If you do that then a court could relieve you from that burden. A court could even issue a certificate of rehabilitation that shields employers, landlords, or others who give you a second chance from civil liability.

Already, state legislatures have been proposing and passing laws to give people a fair shake to prove themselves before dismissing them based on the past.

Hopefully, that momentum keeps building. We should consider what it means to have a record, anyway, when most people either have one, know someone close to them who does, or would have one but for the grace of God. And we should consider how we judge people altogether in a world in which our every action can leave a permanent trace.

The twenty-first century may demand it.

The New DOJ Policy on Charging Decisions

Two weeks ago, the new U.S. Attorney General announced a new policy for charging and sentencing in criminal cases. Although the policy targets drug cases in particular, it applies to all federal prosecutions.

You can break it down into three parts.

First, prosecutors should file the “most serious, readily-provable” charges in each case. The most serious charges are those that carry the stiffest sentence, including any mandatory-minimum sentence. To deviate from this policy, prosecutors must get approval from a supervisor, document their reasons for it, and be able to point to “unusual facts.”

Second, in most cases, prosecutors should seek a standard sentence under federal sentencing guidelines. If they want to deviate from the guideline sentence, they must get supervisory approval and document their reasons in the file.

Third, prosecutors should discard inconsistent policies of the prior administration. Under prior policy, prosecutors still charged the most serious offense that was consistent with a defendant’s conduct and likely to yield a solid conviction. But they were also encouraged to evaluate cases individually to decide which charges to file, and they were told to seek sentences that were fair and proportional under all the circumstances.

In particular, prosecutors now must ignore two prior policies that tried to reduce harsh sentences in low-level, nonviolent drug cases. Under one policy, they were not to charge a specific drug quantity if it triggered a mandatory-minimum sentence, and they were to avoid charging prior drug convictions that doubled the minimum sentence or put someone in prison for life. We wrote about this before here. Under the other policy, they could not threaten to charge such priors just to force you to plead guilty. I guess that’s fair game now.

The new policy has sparked criticism across the spectrum. Lawmakers from both parties have railed against it. One former U.S. Attorney decried its “stunning lack of faith” in line prosecutors. A coalition of state and local prosecutors has published an open letter against it. And the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers had this reaction:

“This Attorney General has taken away the discretion of professional prosecutors to determine what sentence serves justice in any given case. Instead, prosecutors are now required in every case mindlessly to seek the maximum possible penalty…. This policy will lock up non-violent offenders with little or no criminal history, waste untold millions of dollars, devastate families and whole communities, and yet not make us any safer.”

The New Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

Now that Neil Gorsuch has been sworn in, we’ll begin to find out how he wields the law as a member of the highest court in the land.

Some say he’s a natural successor to the Justice whose seat he fills, Antonin Scalia. Here is a profile of Mr. Gorsuch that compares his views to those of Mr. Scalia on matters of criminal law, interstate commerce, and more.

Justice Scalia’s legacy may be complicated, but he defended the rights of the accused in important ways. He championed the right of confrontation, for example. It’s in the Sixth Amendment, and it means that if you’re charged with a crime, your accusers must take the witness stand, testify under penalty of perjury, and face cross-examination in open court. They can’t hide behind hearsay and innuendo. Scalia also championed your right to a trial by jury—that dwindling bastion of freedom and democracy—and he looked after the Fourth Amendment in an age of new technologies.

We hope Justice Gorsuch hews to that heritage and builds on it. Justice Scalia, for example, didn’t care much for the Miranda rule, but we may come to appreciate it more in this century than we did in the last. We may feel differently about the meaning of due process when we see that governments can exercise total dominion over their citizens. We may value legal limits on their power more as we realize that no other limits exist.

To that end, some point optimistically to Gorsuch’s views on overcriminalization, the rule of mens rea, and the rule of lenity.

Others are less sanguine about him in general.

But left, right, or center, most would agree, in the end, with this comment: “We think that all judges should look to the text and history of the Constitution. But [we hope] he will follow all parts of the Constitution, in particular those parts that were added in the 19th and 20th centuries that made our Constitution more equal, more just, more free and pushed us further down an arc of progress.”

The Straight Scoop on Crime Rates

Want to know the truth?

Here are five facts about crime in America. They don’t come from sound bites, talking heads, internet memes, or bloviating politicians. They come from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (or BJS). And they’re brought to you by the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank.

The rate of violent crime has fallen sharply over the last 25 years. Both the FBI and BJS data show a steep decline in the violent-crime rate since the early 1990s.

So has the rate of property crime. This category includes things like theft, burglary, and vandalism. Generally, they’re a lot more common than violent crime.

We, the public, can’t seem to handle the truth. Time and again in opinion polls, a majority of Americans say they believe crime is up, even when it’s down by double-digit percentages.

There are big differences in crime rates depending on where you live. This may not surprise you. The FBI attributes it to factors like population density and economic conditions, among others.

Many crimes go unreported. That may not surprise you, either. Although the FBI does not track unreported crime, the BJS does. We get the most complete picture by studying both data sets. According to the BJS, there are a variety of reasons why people don’t report crime. These include a feeling that police would not or could not do anything to help or that it was a personal issue or too trivial to report.

You Won’t Ever Die From Boredom In a Police Raid

That’s the nice thing about it.

But the same can’t be said for being rash or reckless, which is how some police departments are prone to execute their warrants. They may use SWAT teams as a default option for every search or arrest, and they may go in like gangbusters if they do.

When they do, everyone makes more mistakes, and everyone pays a price. They may hit the wrong address and terrorize an innocent family. Or they may hit the right address but kill someone for no good reason.

Here’s an alternative then.

It comes from this essay by a veteran police officer who served sixteen years on a SWAT team. You could say he’s served a lot of warrants.

His very first search was all smash and grab, and it gave him a rush.

But over time, he says, his team gravitated toward a different default: surround the place and call people out. They realized it worked better. Everyone made better decisions.

What are the downsides? Fewer adrenaline rushes. Fewer cool stories for friends and family. More evidence or contraband flushed down a toilet.

The upsides? Lower risks of harm for everyone. More compliance from people on the receiving end. More people on all sides going home to their families at the end of the day.

Police raids still have their place, the author says. Sometimes, it just isn’t safe for cops to stand around and wait. Or they may be hitting multiple locations at the same time. Or they may lose valuable evidence if they don’t go in fast.

Other times, though, they go in hard and fast to save money on overtime pay or to avoid rush hour later that day, and those aren’t good reasons.

So here’s to slower, safer, smarter law enforcement. May boredom reign.

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