As some states reconsider sex-offender registries, an Alabama resident argues the state’s for-life requirements are too much
“By Cameron Kiszla/ July 15, 2017
A lawsuit before a federal appeals court may have broad implications for Alabama’s sex offender laws, which some critics claim are the harshest in the United States.
Montgomery resident Michael McGuire is suing the state of Alabama for relief from the residency restrictions, travel limits, sex offender registration and other punishments that accompany a conviction of a sexual offense. The case is before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
McGuire was convicted of sexual assault in Colorado more than 30 years ago, before many of the modern punishments around sexual crimes were enacted into law, and his argument hinges on constitutional protections against punishments created after a crime is committed
After serving three years in prison and another on parole, he was released in 1989. He did not find himself in trouble with the law again until 2010, when he moved back to his native Montgomery to be closer to his mother and family.
Upon returning to Alabama, McGuire went to a Montgomery police station to confirm if, as a convicted felon, he was in breach of any state laws. It was at the station he learned he had to register as a sex offender.
He couldn’t live with his wife, mother or brother in Montgomery, because the state required him to stay away from kids, schools and daycares. Soon he was jobless and living under a bridge, with “Criminal Sex Offender” stamped in red letters on his driver’s license.
“He feels like he’s in prison again, a prison without bars,” said Phil Telfeyan, McGuire’s lawyer. “He is restricted where he can live, where he can take jobs. It’s like being a permanent prisoner.”
Alabama’s sex offender laws are among the most stringent in the nation. Home to more than 11,000 registered sex offenders, Alabama is among four states that put sex offenders on a mandatory registry for life and the only state that puts the sex offender stamp on a driver’s license.
And while there’s little sign the state’s voters want to ease up on those restrictions, policymakers in other states are beginning to question whether their registries are doing what they’re intended to do: make the public safer.
“Very few people on the registry are going to commit another offense, and it has nothing to do with the public knowing where they are,” Sandy Rozek, communications director for National Association for Rational Sex Offense Laws, an organization that supports making sex offender registries accessible only to law enforcement.
Critics of registries say they’re based on a flawed perception of how often sex offenders reoffend and where they come into contact with their victims.
“They’re kind of ‘feel good’ laws,” said Emily Horowitz, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at St. Francis College in New York. “We’re all deeply disturbed when harm is done, especially sexual harm, and they came out of emotionally charged, high profile instances.”
She pointed specifically to a study by Ira Mark Ellman, a professor of psychology and law at Arizona State University, and Tara Ellman, who looked at sex offender recidivism in their 2015 study “Frightening and High.” They found the most common statistic, that up to 80 percent of sex offenders reoffend, is a baseless accusation that has been repeated to the point of being held as fact, even by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The likelihood of re-offense declines for each year after release without a new sex offense, even for offenders initially considered at the highest risk to re-offend,” the Ellmans wrote in their study.