Michigan lawmakers seem keen on making important reforms to the state's criminal justice system, which should expand protections for civil liberties. Another item they should add to the list: revamping the state's Sex Offender Registry Act.
The changes are overdue, especially since a federal appeals court decision in 2016 found several aspects of Michigan's law were unconstitutional. Now the impetus is on the Legislature to fix the problems.
If it doesn't, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is prepared to move forward with a federal class-action lawsuit that was filed last year. The ACLU, along with the University of Michigan clinical law program, also brought the former legal action that led to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals' opinion.
"What is very clear is that Michigan cannot enforce the current (Sex Offender Registry) statute," says Miriam Aukerman, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Michigan. "It was found unconstitutional, and the practical reality is that the state hasn't come into compliance with the court's decision."
Aukerman says she is hopeful the Legislature will take this on and that she thinks it's a great opportunity for Michigan to overhaul the entire framework.
Michigan's registry for sex offenders is the fourth-largest in the country, with more than 40,000 registrants, according to the ACLU. The previous lawsuit stemmed from 2011 changes that retroactively placed lifetime registration requirements on about 75 percent of the individuals on the list. That suit also challenged previous rules that placed much stricter limitations on where registrants could live and go.
The appellate courts found that applying these provisions retroactively ran afoul of the Constitution.
The ACLU argues that sex offender registries are an ineffective approach to protecting the public and that they divert police attention and resources from monitoring the most serious offenders.
In many cases, those who land on the list for life were convicted decades ago and remain branded as a sex offender regardless of whether they are an actual threat. Others were teens convicted of consensual sex with younger teens.
Michigan's offender registry is open to the public, and that kind of widespread shaming hampers these individuals from getting jobs and rebuilding their lives. Aukerman says it's a form of lifetime parole, because those on the registry are required to alert police even when they get a new email address or phone number.
Clearly, the state has an interest in protecting the public from potentially dangerous individuals.
Yet Michigan's Sex Offender Registry goes overboard in that aim.
The Legislature must address the constitutional pitfalls with the current law, but it should also look at broader reforms that balance public safety with the civil liberties of convicted individuals.
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