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Here's what I wish more people understood about sex offender registries.
The category of crimes that require one to register as a sex offender in California — which has more registered sex offenders than any other state— is a grossly overbroad one.
As a result, I've had clients who continue to get arrested regularly for failing to register simply because they cannot remember to do it as frequently as they are required to and end up back in prison, where their health continues to deteriorate.
The real problem emerges once someone fails to register — which can be frequent for people who are homeless, disabled, or elderly.
When I first became a public defender, I believed the worst punishment that my clients would face would be time in jail.
Since then, I've learned that incarceration is not the only — and perhaps not the worst — punishment the criminal justice system can impose.
We may not want to legalize those behaviors, but forcing someone to be labeled a sex offender for life over a misdemeanor that is only punishable at its maximum by six months in county jail is excessive.So even if you are, like many of my clients — homeless, mentally ill, and too poor to own a phone — you are nonetheless expected to either call a police station or show up in person, make an appointment over 30 days in advance, wait for hours at the police station on your appointment day (hardly a comfortable place for most of us, let alone someone with a criminal record), read and understand legal jargon on lengthy documents, and continue to do so every few weeks for the rest of your life.The lifetime registration requirement in many states means that there are people being arrested for failing to register who are elderly and whose offenses dated back decades.And even if one secures an appointment, he must often wait many hours at the police station — jeopardizing any job he was lucky enough to find — to be seen for the appointment.And when the appointment begins, there are rarely interpreters around or people to assist with reading the technical language.
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In Georgia, it's even worse: A homeless sex offender must register every time he changes sleeping locations within just 72 hours. Oakland Police Department's current voicemail message for sex registration-related inquiries states that in order to register, one must make an appointment at least a month in advance.