Registries Fuel Mass Incarceration and Don’t Help Survivors

Paul M. Renfro is an assistant professor of history at Florida State University and the author of Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State.

Renfro wrote a recent Jacobin Magazine article that pronounces sex offense registries a failure that should be abolished. Renfro says that registries do not make anyone safer. All they do is fuel mass incarceration while doing nothing to prevent sexual harm.

Here is an excerpt:

Only by dismantling the registry and, in its stead, assembling a more equitable, less punitive society — devoid of the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and material deprivation that enable sexual violence, immiserate young people, and encourage children to run away from home — can we actually end the phenomena of sexual harm.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE HERE


Registry Failures

Nebraska’s fear-mongering public-shaming sex offense website fails in ways almost too numerous to count. But we have categorized some of them. This blog will publish periodic reminders of those failures. Here is today’s reminder:

Evidence shows that a stable home life, employment and reintegration into their communities are among factors that reduce the likelihood of reoffense. This means that the Nebraska sex offense website makes Nebraska more dangerous because it causes people to lose their jobs and their homes, and it causes their families to suffer. A Public Safety Brief from the Council of State Governments states that the vast majority of child molestations — well over 90 percent — are first-time offenses committed by someone known to and close to the family.  The registry does not protect children, it puts children at higher risk because it focuses attention on people who are not going to molest a child. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that just 14 percent of all sexual assault cases reported to law enforcement agencies involved offenders who were strangers to their victims. Sexual assault victims under the age of 18 at the time of the crime knew their abusers in nine out of 10 cases: the abusers were family members in 34 percent of cases, and acquaintances in another 59 percent of cases.

When Something is Both Useless and Harmful, It Should Be Abolished

Even if we grant, for the moment, that the state has an interest in keeping track of people who have been convicted of sexual crimes, it does not need a registry to do so.

Law enforcement agencies have access to criminal background information on anybody, without the need for a fear-mongering, public-shaming website that allows people to find and harm or murder individuals on that site. 

The people who are on the registry are very much like anyone else. They are parents and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. Often, family members, including children, live at the same address that the state lists on the registry website.

If one of those people happens to be a collateral victim the next time someone with murderous intent goes to an address on the website, will the local news media observe, shallowly, that one can understand why that person had to die? 

Nebraskans Unafraid has documented hundreds of errors on the public-shaming registry website. What happens when someone picks out one of those wrong addresses to target with murder?

Any program of police and criminal justice reform must include abolishing the registry. Nebraskans Unafraid opposes any type of registry, including the one that is being proposed for police officers who commit violent brutal acts. Why? Registries do not solve problems. They create problems. Research has shown that they do not help solve or prevent crime. 

Law enforcement agencies across the nation have access to background information about police officers, without the need for another fear-mongering, public-shaming registry website.

If they are useless as public safety tools, what do registries do?

They score points for politicians who support them. That’s why we have them.

Registries also subvert every good thing a listed person tries to do to put his or her life back together. A job, a safe and secure home, and family connections are key components of successful re-entry into the community following a term of incarceration. Registries have the effect of taking all of those things away from former offenders who are trying to become productive citizens.

Registries take away lives.

Registry Failures

Nebraska’s fear-mongering public-shaming sex offense website fails in ways almost too numerous to count. But we have categorized some of them. This blog will publish periodic reminders of those failures. Here is today’s reminder:

The Nebraska Legislature’s finding from the 1990s that all sex offenders are dangerous was not based on any scientific, empirical evidence. It was a politically-motivated “made up” finding that was based on popular myth. There is a vast and growing body of evidence that the reverse is actually true – that former sex offenders are among the least likely to reoffend. The Legislative Finding is made up in the same way that the oft-repeated “50,000 online predators” number was made up. This narrative shows how this round, easy-to-remember number (which is just a lie) was fabricated by the network that brought you “To Catch a Predator.”

Black Lives Matter

This is a repost of a post from the blog Notes from the Handbasket / Waiting for the Second Age of Reason.


Black lives matter. Absolutely. People of color are disproportionately represented at all phases of the criminal justice system: interactions with law enforcement, arrests, jail, prison, probation and parole. Recognizing that truth ought to lead us to make changes that will result in fair, proportional treatment.

We’ve known that truth for decades and yet here we are, mourning another death of another black man at the hands of police.

So why have we not seen reforms?

The simplistic response is to blame racism but racism alone doesn’t make it possible for cops to kill a man in broad daylight, with the death recorded and seen around the world, and not face consequences. 

Racism with power is the explanation.

Without the power to act with impunity, law enforcement officers would be much less likely to treat people with such aggression and hostility. The racists we encounter in our daily lives–neighbors, co-workers, family–are extremely unlikely to kill someone just because of skin color. Racism can show itself in other damaging ways but most racists cannot kill without being held accountable.

Law enforcement officers can. What gives them that power? The doctrine of qualified immunity, for one.

An article in The Appeal explains:

That doctrine has become one of the chief ways in which law enforcement avoids accountability for misconduct and…even proven constitutional violations. Ordinary people—whether they’re doctors, lawyers, or construction workers—are expected to follow the law. If they violate someone else’s legal rights, they can be sued and required to pay for the injuries they’ve caused.

Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, public officials are held to a much lower standard. They can be held accountable only insofar as they violate rights that are “clearly established” in light of existing case law. This standard shields law enforcement, in particular, from innumerable constitutional violations each year.

Qualified immunity permits law enforcement and other government officials to violate people’s constitutional rights with virtual impunity. Today, we hear about police shooting after police shooting where officers are rarely if ever held accountable by the criminal legal system, either because prosecutors decline to charge, because grand juries decline to indict, or because juries decline to convict.

In Minneapolis, the four police officers involved in George Floyd’s death were all fired the same day Floyd was killed. At first glance, that looks like progress…a police department that has had enough of overly aggressive cops.

History, though, shows us that firing bad cops is not a sure thing.

In Omaha NE, June 2017, Zachary BearHeels, in the midst of a mental health crisis, was tasered a dozen times by one of the police officers who were called to help him. Another officer punched BearHeels 13 times in 15 seconds. Bearheels died after those assaults. 

There was video, and Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer fired the four cops involved in BearHeels’ death. The city breathed a sigh of relief and gratitude that Schmaderer saw things clearly.

Three years later? Three of those cops are back on the force, thanks to efforts by the Omaha Police Officers’ Association, the police union. The Omaha World-Herald reports,All three will receive back pay since they were fired, minus any income they may have earned in that time, in den Bosch said. Those amounts have not been calculated yet. McClarty’s payment will have 20 days — the length of the suspension period imposed by the arbitrators — taken out of his back pay.

In a statement, Schmaderer said it is time to move forward.

“Omaha police officers have a very difficult job and my focus is on keeping my officers safe in the coronavirus environment while simultaneously protecting the city,” he said.

Tony Conner, the president of the police union, said the process was fair and that “every American citizen has the right to due process, including any police officer.”In addition to qualified immunity, law enforcement officers have powerful unions to protect their jobs. In a USA Today opinion piece, former union official Benjamin Sachs explains:Among the many outrages in the death of George Floyd is this one: Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed Floyd, had been the subject of at least 17 misconduct complaints and yet he remained an armed member of the Minneapolis Police Department. How does that happen? Part of the answer is the collective bargaining agreement reached between the police department and Chauvin’s union.

Like other such police agreements, the one in Minneapolis gives cops extraordinary protection from discipline for violent conduct. It mandates a 48-hour waiting period before any officer accused of such conduct can be interviewed, a common delay and a luxury not afforded even to criminal suspects and one that allows officers time to develop a strategy to avoid accountability.

Like many police contracts, including those in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C., the Minneapolis agreement also requires the expungement of police disciplinary records after a certain amount of time.When people call for an end to police unions or a limit to their bargaining power, this is why.

There are other elements that lead to overly aggressive and violent policing, including the militarization of America’s police as detailed in the Radley Balko book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop. Look at the armored vehicles used against protesters in the current demonstrations and riots across the country. Look at the riot gear. Look at how those military tools are used against young protesters.

Something is wrong with policing in this country. Police assume a warrior attitude of cops vs citizen, even though they are sworn to protect and serve the community.

Until we make changes that will hold law enforcement officers accountable to their communities, the vulnerable in our communities will pay for our lack of will to push for change.

The cry to “defund the police” is one that puzzles some people–generally people who work from the assumption that the cops are here to deal with criminals for us. Defunding police departments–or reducing the law enforcement budget–would  force those departments to rework their priorities. Can they do more with less? Can they do without spending money on ever more advanced riot gear? Can they operate without flashy surveillance equipment? 

The combination of over-criminalization and over-policing is not found in every neighborhood. Some of us live where police officers come to the block party carrying beer. Others live where cops cruise the neighborhood waiting to arrest someone. Big difference.

Until people can see that some communities suffer from over-policing, they will continue to think that those communities have more criminals and that’s why so many of those families have a loved one who is incarcerated. 

And that is where racism shows up: the willingness to believe that people of that race or that neighborhood are inherently worse than we are. 

When the power of the state is brought to bear against an individual like George Floyd, a list of people convicted of a certain category of crime, a neighborhood or a demonstration, we had better make sure that we have a way to fight that power. When the state puts policies in place that prevent us from holding the state–law enforcement–responsible for its crimes and misdeeds, the power of the state is magnified. Magnified power is hard to destroy.

We must demand change to reduce that power.

Yes. Black lives matter. They matter enough this time to cause riots. Are we listening? Are we watching? Are we demanding changes that will decrease the power of law enforcement?