By John Agar – firstname.lastname@example.org
GRAND RAPIDS, MI — A restriction prohibiting sex offenders from living or working within 1,000 feet of schools made a patchwork path of nearly half of Grand Rapids off-limits to people on a statewide registry, an ACLU attorney said.
Now, a federal judge in Detroit has ruled that “geographic exclusion zones” are unconstitutional, one of multiple provisions of the law, which was so confusing that lawyers had trouble advising clients how to steer clear of violations that were struck down last month.
“SORA (Sex Offender Registry Act) imposes myriad restrictions and reporting requirements that affect many aspects of registrants’ lives,” U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland wrote.
The law’s ambiguity and lengthy provisions “make it difficult for a well-intentioned registrant to understand all of his or her obligations,” he said.
“SORA was not enacted as a trap for individuals who have committed sex offenses in the past (and who already have served their sentences). Rather, the goal is public safety, and public safety would only be enhanced by the government ensuring that registrants are aware of their obligations.”
Miriam Aukerman, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan who represented plaintiffs in the Detroit case, said: “We can’t be punishing people for not understanding a law that is so unclear.”
Aukerman, who works in Grand Rapids, said sex offenders have enough trouble finding a place to live or work. She said courts are recognizing problems with the sex-offender registry. Earlier, a federal judge ruled that homeless Grand Rapids sex offenders could legally stay at homeless shelters, despite all of the centers being within a school safety zone.
Aukerman said additional changes are needed. She said risk assessments should be done to determine if someone belongs on the registry, rather than simply a conviction for certain crimes.
One of her clients in the Detroit case met a teenager who slipped into a night club. She was 16. The woman and the client now have two children, but he’s required to be on the registry. With so many included, the “registry doesn’t actually protect the public,” Aukerman said.
“We need to take a common-sense approach to the registry. The laws don’t make us safer. People tend to think everybody on the registry is dangerous. There’s no risk assessment.”
She said that Michigan has the fourth-largest sex offender registry in the country because everyone convicted of certain offenses is put on the list. Other states do risk assessments.
“We have no idea how many people on the registry are truly dangerous and who are not,” Aukerman said. “The registry may make us feel safer, but actually this doesn’t make people safer.”
The ruling that struck down certain provisions of the registry came in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of five John Does and a Jane Doe against Gov. Rick Snyder and state police Director Col. Kirste Etue.
State police spokeswoman Shanon Banner emailed: “We have reviewed the ruling with the Attorney General’s office to determine its immediate impact on our practices, and we are currently working to make necessary changes to come into compliance. We will also be working with the Legislature to clarify portions of the Act that need addressing.”
Aukerman said that the U.S. Department of Justice does not recommend exclusion zones.
She cited a report by the Department of Justice’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking.
“Restrictions that prevent convicted sex offenders from living near schools, daycare centers and other places where children congregate have generally had no deterrent effect on sexual reoffending, particularly against children. In fact, studies have revealed that proximity to schools and other places where children congregate had little relation to where offenders met child victims,” the report said.
Aukerman said that an expert determined that nearly half of Grand Rapids is off-limits to sex offenders.
John Agar covers crime for MLive/Grand Rapids Press E-mail John Agar: email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ReporterJAgar