Scholars Provide Sex Offender Guidelines During COVID-19

SEX OFFENSE LITIGATION AND POLICY RESOURCE CENTER

Strategies for reducing COVID-19 exposure by revising the implementation of registration policies, housing banishment laws, and other restrictions impacting people with convictions

MARCH 28, 2020 – We join numerous criminal justice organizations that have issued policy recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by suspending or eliminating non-essential police and court functions, while ensuring that law enforcement resources are used wisely to keep communities safe.

This guidance focuses on policies affecting people listed on sex offense registries. More than 900,000 Americans are subject to registration and/or housing banishment laws. The nature of these rules and regulations and the enormous number of people who must comply with or enforce them, raise urgent concerns about public health and resource allocation in this extraordinary time.

During the registration process, people are typically required to fill out forms stating their address, employer, school, phone number, vehicle data, etc. and to return, in person, to report even trivial changes.  These cumbersome registration processes tie up sworn officers who could instead be investigating crime, attending to emergencies, and assisting people in crisis.

Housing banishment laws often prohibit people from residing in the vast majority of residential areas of a city or town. As a result, those with stable homes, or several housing options, frequently become homeless anyway. This false scarcity of housing also increases prison populations as people have no legally authorized home in which to serve their parole or probation.

Even before COVID-19, the unintended consequences of these policies were well documented. The current pandemic, however, adds urgency to revise current registry and banishment practices as many of them undermine the critical public health measures being implemented nationwide to contain its spread.

The following strategies would reduce COVID-19 exposure among law enforcement officials and those required to register, as well as their families at home, and the broader community:

  1. Suspend in-person registration requirements. Registration requires frequent in-person visits to police stations or jails, where dozens of people commonly congregate in waiting rooms or bullpens, multiplying the risk of transmission of COVID-19. Following the lead of Oregon and other jurisdictions, this process should be modified.
  2. Waive or suspend housing banishment laws and other housing restrictions. People experiencing homelessness need emergency housing in order to comply with stay-at-home orders or self-quarantine. But many people listed on “homeless registries” have places they could otherwise reside: housing restrictions alone caused their homelessness. Likewise, prisons have backlogs of people incarcerated past their release dates, or who would be released on parole or probation supervision, if so much housing were not barred. Suspending these restrictions will allow cities to house people more efficiently, conserve emergency beds, and give prison officials the flexibility to place people in homes they already have available. This will protect their populations from the heightened risk of contagion created by needless incarceration and homeless encampments when there are safe available homes for people on the registries.
  3. Waive or suspend arrests and prosecutions for failure-to-comply offenses. “Failure to comply” charges are the result of a missed deadline to reregister or update registration. Akin to technical parole violations, these are often hyper-technicalities that stem from the difficulty of following so many onerous reporting requirements, and have no reported correlation to public safety. Despite this, they contribute to jail and prison churn, risking increased transmission of the virus.
  4. Suspend fees for registration. Economists are projecting 14%-20% GDP contraction for this quarter and unemployment in double-digit rates. Many people have already lost their incomes as a result of the shutdowns. People with past convictions are far more likely to be poor, with reduced job prospects. Non-payment of these fees can result in failure-to-comply charges; during this crisis registration fees should be suspended.
  5. Suspend in-person address verifications. Routine police visits to the addresses of people listed on registries, for the sole purpose of an address check, should be suspended. These visits are widespread, and number in the tens of thousands. At a time when even 911 calls are under stress, law enforcement should be able to redirect their resources as needed.
  6. Suspend Internet access restrictions. Some people who are on probation or parole are forbidden from accessing wide swaths of the Internet, and some states have laws limiting Internet access for people listed on a conviction registry. During this crisis, access to the Internet has become even more critical: nearly everyone must rely on Internet access for work, news, homeschooling, services, and family connections. Individual safety, as well as public health compliance, requires timely online access to crucial information about social and health services, as well as access to medical services that are moving online.
  7. “Step down” people in civil commitment. More than 6,000 people are locked post-sentence in prison-like state civil commitment facilities, that pose the same coronavirus dangers to staff and detainees as jails and prisons. States should speed up “step-down” procedures and move people into supervised community settings.

CONCLUSION

State conviction registries were intended to be a tool for law enforcement officials and were limited in scope. In the past quarter century, legislators expanded these public databases and added hundreds of additional reporting requirements and other restrictions, including housing and public space banishment laws, and long-term confinement in civil commitment. Research shows that at least 95% of those arrested for a sexual offense have never had a previous sex offense conviction, while most people currently required to register are unlikely to be re-arrested for a sexual offense.  Rather than improve public safety, these regulations:

  • Systematically displace people from housing and employment,
  • Weaken the resilience of families and communities coping with crime and mass incarceration,
  • Divert critical resources away from crime survivors and proven prevention strategies and expand them on regulating the few people who have already been held accountable and punished.

In contrast, public safety and crime reduction principles emphasize a public health approach to prevention, involving, among other things, primary prevention, focusing on the warning signs inside familial and social circles, and building early and comprehensive support and intervention for people, families, and communities most impacted by violence.

We urge policymakers to suspend rules and policies that are not essential to public safety or that contribute to the spread of COVID-19. These strategies allow law enforcement, on the frontlines of this catastrophe, to dedicate more of their limited resources toward crisis intervention and emergency assistance

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Dwayne Daughtry

Dwayne is NCRSOL's Executive Director.

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