Let’s talk about sex (offenders)

Sex offenses.  A conviction for these types of crimes is perhaps the most life altering of any conviction (felony or misdemeanor).  Our clients who have been charged with sex crimes deal not only with the stigma of labels like “sex offender” “sexual predator” “rapist”, but also with the enduring label of a sex offender registry.  Typically, if a person is convicted of a crime, he or she may progress through a few labels—from “defendant” to “probationer” or “inmate” and then “parolee.”  Once the sentence has been served, however, the worst label they have left to deal with is “felon.”  Being labeled a felon is certainly negative, and has serious consequences on the kinds of jobs individuals can apply for  and the kinds of employers who are willing to hire them.  But being labeled a felon usually does not prevent individuals from being able to live in certain neighborhoods or with their own children.

Not so for those convicted of sex crimes.  The most harrowing part of a sex crime conviction is the registry period after release from DOC or the plea (if probation is given or it is a time-served disposition).  Not only does being on the registry subject its registrants to public shaming, much like wearing a scarlet letter, but it limits where they can live, who they can live with, and where they can work (assuming that they can find an employer willing to hire them).  Frustratingly, there is little evidence that the registry requirement reduces sex crimes or lessens an offender’s likelihood to re-offend.   However, the State has decided that such seemingly-punitive measures must be imposed on all individuals who have been convicted of a sex related crime.*  One of the problems is that many individuals who find themselves subject to the registry are not actually dangerous criminals lurking in dark alleys waiting for their next victim.  In fact, we find that frequently individuals who find themselves subject to the sex offender registry are subject because of serious lapses in judgment as opposed to violent or deviant sexual behavior.

As a society, we have found it easy to target individuals who have committed sex offenses with punitive measures because it can be hard to find the redeeming qualities in someone who would abuse or assault another person sexually.  That reaction is natural.  However, the blanket approach that our legislature has taken to all sex offenders everywhere does a disservice to those who have committed sex offenses, not because they are dangerous criminals but because they are human beings who made a poor choice, as well citizens who are just wanting to be protected from those who would commit such and offense.  The latter group, citizens wanting to be protected from individuals who are sexually deviant, are ill-served by the blanket approach because all they see is the label “sex offender” and are, therefore, concerned about every individual on the list as opposed to just those who might actually have violent sexual tendencies.  Those who are required to be on the list are not served because: (1) they are prevented from ever fully re-entering society because of the scarlet letter attached to their name; (2) their housing options become limited; (3) time with their own children (when their offense had nothing to do with children) is limited or terminated altogether; and (4) their job prospects are limited.  A great deal of hardship thus results from the registry requirement, making it seem quite punitive to those affected by it—even though the registry requirement has been determined to be “remedial” by the Illinois Supreme Court.

And the sex offender registry is merely the most obvious impediment to a normal life that a person convicted of a sex crime will face.  Frequently, and especially while the individual is on parole/probation, he or she will be required to participate in sex offender treatment.  To be fair, the idea of treatment is seldom controversial–society wants these individuals to receive treatment to reduce the likelihood of re-offending, and most individuals convicted of sex offenses want to receive treatment for the same reason.  However, the rules and regulations governing sex offender treatment contain provisions unlike those in any other treatment programs.  For example, treatment providers may insist that the individual submit to polygraph tests as part of their treatment.  Understand: polygraph tests are so inherently unreliable that their results cannot even be used as evidence in court–yet sex offender treatment providers are permitted to require polygraph tests as part of treatment.  Another example of a seemingly bizarre and highly invasive physiological test that is permitted by the rules of the Illinois Sex Offender Management Board is penile plethysmography, also known as phallometric testing.  Even beyond the treatment setting, there are other practical consequences that can flow from a conviction for a sex offense—for instance, It is often tough to get judges to see past the label “sex offender” when they are deciding issues of parental visitation.

Do not misunderstand: no one denies that there exist individuals that society should be warned about.  However, as a result of years of legislative excess, citizens who commit even relatively minor, non-violent sexual offenses are often being lumped into the same category as violent criminals.  We believe there should be a safety-valve for certain non-violent offenders so that going forward with their lives they only have to suffer the label “felon” (which is life changing) and not the label “sex offender.”  Until such laws are enacted, though, we continue to advocate on behalf of our clients and their families for prosecutors to use their discretion in charging, negotiating, and resolving cases—and for judges to exercise lenity in sentencing—with the goal that sentences imposed following plea or conviction for a sexual offensive are merciful, rehabilitative, and just.  If you or someone you love has been charged with a sex offense in central Illinois please call us so that we can help.

 

 

*The Illinois Supreme Court has determined that the registry requirement is not punitive but rather remedial.