It has been 10 years since Shaun Webb, a married father and caretaker at an Oakland County Catholic church, was convicted of groping a teenage girl over her sweater, a claim Webb vehemently denies.
Webb, then 37 with a clean criminal record, was convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault and sent to jail for seven months.
Though a misdemeanor, state law demanded Webb be listed on the same public sex offender registry as hard core rapists, pedophiles and other felons. It has meant a decade of poverty, unemployment, harassment, divorce and depression for him. Under the current law, he’ll be on the list until 2031.
“It’s destroyed my life,” Webb said from his rural home in Arenac County, where he now lives alone with his dog Cody.
Webb is one of 43,000 Michigan residents required by law to be listed on the state’s online sex offender registry, and one of about 800,000 nationwide on individual state registries. Each state has a digital registry that can be searched on the Internet that are monitored by parents, potential employers and cautious neighbors.
Webb can’t find employers willing to hire him. He was harassed by neighbors who once put up flyers in his old neighborhood, and his wife left him after he got out of jail. A woman in Florida he has never met, a self-proclaimed vigilante, tracks his every move online, calling him names and taunting him as a child rapist.
To be sure, registries help track violent sexual offenders and pedophiles who prey on children, and they’re also politically popular and get lots of traffic online. But Michigan’s law and others have come under increased fire lately as overly broad and potentially unconstitutional.
For example, Michigan has the fourth highest per capita number of people on its registry and is one of only four states that requires some convicted of public urination to be on the list.
Research also suggests the lists do little to protect communities and often create ongoing misery for some who served their sentences and are unlikely to reoffend.
Even some early advocates have changed their minds, including Patty Wetterling, the mother of Jacob Wetterling, who went missing when he was 11 and was never found. Police suspected a pedophile living nearby abducted him. At the time, Wetterling lobbied passionately for a federal law authorizing registries and was at the White House in 1994 when President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law.
She now advocates revamping the laws, saying some juveniles and others who made mistakes are unnecessarily tarred for life. “Should they never be given a chance to turn their lives around,” she asked in a published 2013 interview. “Instead, we let our anger drive us.”
But legislators and law enforcement officials say the registries are useful because they help keep track of potentially dangerous people. They also dismiss the research, saying it’s impossible to determine who might reoffend, and caution against narrowing the definition in Michigan of who should be listed.
“The problem I have is should we go back and say only pedophiles have to register?” said state Sen. Rick Jones, who helped draft some of Michigan’s sex offender registry laws. “Do we want violent sex offenders on the school ground, do we want public masturbators on the school grounds? I’m not prepared to change the way the list operates.”
Many parents say the registries makes them feel safer. Lori Petty, a legal secretary, has been logging on regularly over the years as she raised her two sons in Commerce Township.
“If they were going over to a friend’s house to visit, I would look to see who lived nearby, if there was a high concentration,” she said. “Not that there was anything I could do, but it helps to know.”
Her sons are now 18 and 25, and she monitors the site less frequently, using it to see who may have moved close by, she said.
“I want to know who is living in my neighborhood.”
Laws have expanded
In Michigan, most of those convicted of sex offenses are listed online and show up with just a few key strokes on a website managed by the Michigan State Police. Webb’s face, address, conviction, physical description, birth date and job location pop up if you plug in his name, or the ZIP code where he lives. It does not give the circumstances of his arrest. The state’s site gets about 227,000 hits a month.
Each state has a digital registry that can be searched on the Internet that are monitored by parents, potential employers and cautious neighbors.
Sex offender registry laws were first passed in the 1990s following a string of horrific child murders. The registries were originally accessible only by police, allowing them to track the most dangerous offenders.
But lawmakers expanded the laws over the years — they are now public record and include teenagers who had consensual sex, people arrested for public urination, people who had convictions expunged at the request of their victims, and people like Webb, who have no felony convictions.
They also include people who are not predators. Earlier this month, a Florida couple was convicted of lewd behavior after having consensual sex on a public beach. They will have to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.
While convicted sex offenders don’t tend to generate much public sympathy, research in the last two decades shows such registries might not be very effective. And higher courts recently have called registries harsh and unconstitutional, including a ruling last month that says parts of Michigan’s law are vague and unconstitutional, making it impossible in some instances for offenders to know if they are following the law.
For many, there is also a question of fundamental fairness when a 19-year-old is convicted of having sex with his underage girlfriend or somebody convicted of public urination is grouped on the same list as a serial rapist.
Despite the court rulings and the research, it’s doubtful public sex offender registries are going away, although it seems apparent Michigan and other states are going to have to make some changes.
Is it fair?
A big question, though, is whether Michigan’s expansive definition of who should be on the sex offender registry is fair to people like Webb. After losing his job at the church and serving his time, he found himself unable to resume a productive life.
“I don’t bother people. I keep to myself. I can’t get a job,” he said, struggling to keep his composure during a recent interview. “I’m just trying to live my life as best I can.”
He moved up to Arenac County from Oakland County a few years ago and has been writing thrillers and true crime books he self-publishes and sells at book fairs and on Amazon.
It doesn’t pay the bills.
He gets by on food stamps and help from family members who pay his rent. He has sometimes considered suicide. He takes antidepressants. Under Michigan law, the now 47-year-old Webb has to stay on the registry until 2031. He has committed no new crimes.
The then-15-year-old girl who made the claims against Webb was a family member of a cleaning crew that worked at the church and school. Webb had reported earlier that he thought the crew had been stealing cleaning and school supplies. Weeks later, the girl claimed Webb had been molesting her in his office. He was charged with three counts and convicted of one.
The girl and her family are believed to have moved away. The Free Press was unable to locate her for this story.
Webb’s ex-wife Nancy, a teacher at the church school, said she believes he was wrongly accused — and that his conviction and registration as an offender destroyed their marriage.
“I never believed the accusations and was amazed that such totally unsupported claims would even be considered,” she said in an e-mail to the Free Press. “These people I knew and spoke to many times. I went through the trial confused and frightened but confident that justice would prevail. I was shocked by the conduct of the judge and the prosecutor. Conviction, not truth, was their primary motivation.”
She stood by him but, she said, “Shaun returned from jail a changed person. He couldn’t work due to his criminal record, even though it’s listed as a misdemeanor, and his sex offender status. He sank into depression, anxiety and alcohol. Financially drained and emotionally spent, it destroyed our hope and our marriage.”
Michigan ranks fourth
Nationally, there are about 800,000 people registered as sex offenders across the 50 states.
Michigan is particularly aggressive, ranking fourth in the nation with the number of offenders on the registry, following only California, Texas and Florida. It also ranks fourth per capita, with 417 registrants per 100,000 citizens. It is one of only 13 states that count public urination as a sex crime, although two convictions are required before registration.
And Michigan continues to require registration for consensual sex among teenagers if the age difference is greater than four years.
In April, a U.S District Court judge in Detroit found Michigan’s sex offender law unconstitutional on several fronts, noting it is so vague — including a provision that offenders can’t live, work or “loiter” within a thousand feet of a school — that it is almost impossible to comply.
The law “makes it difficult for a well-intentioned registrant to understand his or her obligations,” Judge Robert Cleland wrote. The sex offender law “was not enacted as a trap for individuals who have committed sex offenses in the past and who have already served their sentences. Rather the goal is public safety and public safety would only be enhanced by the government ensuring that registrants be aware of their obligations.”
Cleland, in making his ruling, relied in part on the testimony of the state’s own expert on sex offenders, Dr. Janet Fay-Dumaine, a psychologist at the state’s Center for Forensic psychology who assesses and treats sex offenders. Few, she testified, reoffend.
“It is extremely contrary to our cultural assumptions about sex offenders. It’s hard for people to get their head around. Yes, there is a group of sex offenders that are a high risk of (offending again), but that’s a very small number of sex offenders. Most do not (offend again). And this is a pretty robust finding in the literature.”
Some legislators disagree
Michigan legislators are reviewing Cleland’s ruling and considering reforming the laws to make them compliant. Some, though, think tougher laws are in order. And they dismiss critics who say the registries cause unnecessary misery to those who have already served their sentences.
“I say if you do the horrible rape, or if you have sex with a child, you deserve the consequences,” said state Sen. Rick Jones, who helped draft some of Michigan’s sex offender registry laws.
Jones questions the research that shows sex offenders are much less likely to reoffend and that the majority of those on the registry pose no threat.
“I have 31 years of experience in police work, and as a retired sheriff in Eaton County I formed some very strong opinions that the science is still not clear for pedophiles. I believe it is society’s duty to keep pedophiles from children so that the temptation isn’t there. So I say you need to stay a thousand feet from schools.”
Jones also discounts the idea that offenders should be treated differently, depending on their likelihood of re-offending. Minnesota, for instance, places offenders on its registry based on extensive risk assessment and psychological testing, not the crimes they committed.
Registries can hamper
Jones’ views are not supported by the facts, said Miriam Aukerman, an ACLU attorney who filed the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Michigan’s law. She notes that the lawsuit includes a man forced to register after having consensual sex with his teenaged girl friend.
The pair are now together and have two children. Yet the man is prohibited from attending school functions for his children and has a hard time holding down a job.
“While many other states focus law enforcement resources on those who are actually a danger, Michigan’s registry fails to separate those who are a risk from those who aren’t. That’s why it is one of the largest registries in the county,” Aukerman said.
“Michigan’s registry includes people like our client John Doe, who is on the registry for a relationship with the woman who is now the mother of his two children and whom he met at a club restricted to adults,” she said. “None of us are safer when the police have to monitor people like him who don’t need to be monitored, and then don’t have the time to effectively monitor the people who should be monitored. If we want to be safe, we need to give the police the tools they need. And that means a registry that uses risk assessments to determine who needs to be monitored and who doesn’t.”
Even national advocacy groups for survivors of sexual assault say overly broad public registries can hamper, rather than help.
“Sex offender registration can be useful for law enforcement agencies in their tracking of convicted sex offenders,” according to the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, a Washington-based advocacy group. “However, over-inclusive publication notification can actually be harmful to public safety by diluting the ability to identify the most dangerous offenders and by disrupting the stability of low-risk offenders in ways that increase their risk of reoffense.”
A 1989 abduction
State and federal lawmakers have long grappled with how to keep children safe from predators, passing laws that, on first review, would appear to give police and parents tools to monitor the most reviled predators in the community.
Eleven-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted near his home in Minnesota in 1989 by what police came to believe was a pedophile living nearby. Jacob has never been found. In 1994, Congress created the Jacob Wetterling Crime Act, requiring that sex offenders register with local police and verify their current names and addresses. The public did not have access to the information.
Then, in May, 1996, the federal government demanded that those registries be made public, requiring states to list the names on the Internet. And in 2007, Congress passed the Adam Walsh Protection Act, expanding the reporting requirements of sex offenders, mandating that they also report where they work and attend school and increasing the length of time they stay on the registry. Some states, like Minnesota, refused to comply and were denied federal grant money.
While those laws may have helped parents rest easier, there is no evidence that they stopped sexual predators. And in some cases, offenders, ostracized and stigmatized, unable to rejoin society, turned to new, sometimes nonsexual crimes, research shows.
Patty Wetterling, Jacob’s mother, is currently the board chair director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and for many years supported the development of registries in all 50 states.
But in recent years, she has become a vocal critic of the registries, saying they are unnecessarily punitive and ineffective.
“People want a single solution, and that’s been sold over the years … but we’ve cast such a broad net that we’re catching a lot of juveniles who did something stupid, and different types of offenders who just screwed up,” Wetterling said in an interview, published in 2013. “Should they never be given a chance to turn their lives around? Instead we let our anger drive us.”
What the science says
A 2010 study by the American Journal of Public Health, examining sex offender laws nationwide and the best way to reduce recidivism, noted: “Research to date indicates that after 15 years the laws have had little impact on recidivism rates and the incidence of sexually based crimes.”
Instead, the study found, “The most significant impact of these laws seems only to be numerous collateral consequences for communities, registered sex offenders – including a potential increased risk for recidivism – and their family members.”
J.J. Prescott, a law professor at the University of Michigan and a nationally recognized expert on sex offender registry laws, agrees. He has done statistical analysis of the impact the laws have on crime rates.
“I believe that if a sex offender really wants to commit a crime, these laws are not going to be particularly effective at stopping him,” he said, noting that there is no evidence that residency restrictions or “school safety zones” have had any positive impact on the rate of sexual assault on children, according to studies nationwide.
“The primary concern driving the passage and expansion of these laws is what people refer to as ‘stranger danger.’ People are worried about someone they don’t know attacking them or their kids,” he said. “But most offenders are well known to victims. Plus, there are so many ways for people to wind up on the registry. These aren’t all rapists or child molesters. Urinating in public can be enough. Many are crimes without violence.”
The registries have had an important unintended consequence, he said. The public shaming of sex offenders makes it almost impossible to re-assimilate them into the community as a productive citizen, and as a result, “we’ve effectively reduced the threat of prison.
“For some of these people, prison is a better option than trying to survive on the outside… or at least not significantly worse. These laws destroy what’s valuable about someone’s freedom: You’re a pariah virtually everywhere, you can’t live in most neighborhoods, and nobody wants to date, marry, or socialize with you. You can’t find a job because no one will hire a sex offender. All told, these laws take away their reasons for staying on the straight and narrow, for working hard to become a valuable member of a community. On balance, these laws may actually make it more attractive for convicted offenders to return to crime.”
Prescott stops short of calling for an end to all sex offender registries, as some critics have. His research shows that limited registries open only to law enforcement “do work at reducing recidivism across all classes of offenders.”
While his research also shows that the mere threat of having to publicly register may deter some potential offenders from committing their first crime, this effect is more than offset in states with large registries by higher levels of recidivism among those who have been convicted.
“Law reads like dog food”
KG, a Macomb County man who asked that his name not be made public because of his wife and children, has no criminal conviction on the record, but he is on the public registry.
Ten years ago, his stepchild accused KG, a mid-level manager working for a car company, of inappropriate groping. Faced with the possibility of a trial that would include family members testifying against each other, he took the advice of his lawyer, and pleaded to a misdemeanor charge of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. He did no jail time and was placed on probation.
“I thought it was in the best interest of my family,” he said. “I didn’t understand the ramifications.”
His employer found out he was listed as a sex offender and fired him after 20 years. He got new jobs, but the registry caught up with him during background checks and he has mostly been unemployed over the last decade. Not long ago, he testified before the state’s judiciary committee on the need for reform.
“I explained what happened to me,” he said. “I’m not a predator, I’m not a pedophile.”
A few months ago, he sought to have his criminal history cleared. The stepchild who made the allegations wrote the court, asking that his criminal conviction be expunged. A judge agreed and removed the conviction.
Yet he still remains on the sex offender registry. The law doesn’t allow even those who have had their criminal histories cleared to be removed from the list.
“I see this all the time,” said Shannon Smith, a Bloomfield Hills attorney who has built her practice representing people charged with sex offenses. She represented KG in having his record cleared.
“So often the people who come to me are involved in touching that was misinterpreted, or kids who were involved in something. It’s total overkill. This man is not a risk.”
Smith estimates she has represented 200 or so people charged with sex crimes and some already on the registry. Some were facing new penalties for not following the complicated reporting requirements, not for committing new offenses.
“The law reads like dog food,” she said. “The decision to place somebody on the registry should be based on risk assessment and judges should have more discretion.”
Jennifer Zoltowski, a licensed psychologist who specializes in sexual disorders, does risk assessments for courts, helping to determine the likelihood an offender might re-offend. She evaluated KG and determined that he posed no threat, submitting her findings to the court..
“People hear the words sex offender and they immediately think pedophile,” said Zoltowski, who has done more than 600 assessments since 2001. Many were done while she worked at the Oakland County Court Psychology Clinic. “There are too many people I’ve seen who really don’t belong on the registry.”
Zoltowski also runs a private practice treating sexual problems and says studies consistently show that many respond well to therapy, particularly juveniles. “But there is such a stigma attached that a lot of them won’t seek help, or they’re worried that they’ll be reported to police.”
Both Smith and Zoltowski belong to Michigan’s Coalition for a Useful Registry, a group that meets four times a year to discuss the laws and lobby legislators for reform. The group includes attorneys, probation officers, a retired judge, and family members of those on the registry.
“Its really very political,” said Smith. “And the public has such a misconception of who these people are.”
Many in law enforcement though, believe that it is impossible to predict who will re-offend and that it’s better to monitor too much rather than not enough.
“We know from experience that a peeping tom can escalate to violent crime,” said Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, who drafted Michigan’s first sex offender laws in the 1990s, when he was a state senator.
And regarding critics who say the laws are unnecessarily punitive and punish people who have already served their time, he said, “I don’t care. In my mind some of these people should not have been released to begin with.”
L.L. Brasier is a reporter for the Detroit Free Press.