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Shawna: A Life on the Sex Offender Registry

A young mother struggles with life on the sex offender registry.

I met Shawna a year into filming “Untouchable,” a documentary that examines sex offender laws through the lives of individuals on the sex offender registry. It was at an Oklahoma treatment center where she was participating in a mandatory group therapy session. She was there because fifteen years earlier, Shawna was deemed to be a sexual predator after pleading guilty to having consensual sex with a 14-year-old boy when she was 19.

Listening to Shawna’s story, it became immediately clear that she was far from the kind of person we imagine when we think about sexual predators. She wasn’t some serial rapist or violent pedophile, but rather a young woman who happened to hook up with the wrong guy on her birthday. And as we continued to work on the film, we consistently found others consigned to the margins of society and slapped with a “sex offender” label that didn’t quite seem to fit.

In a desolate parking lot a few months later, I met Adrian. And while his story ultimately didn’t become part of the film, it stuck with me. Adrian was a junior at North Dakota State majoring in business management, when he travelled to Miami for spring break. There, he met a girl at an 18-and-over club. They flirted and danced, then walked to the beach where they had sex. They spent about five days together, hanging out on and off and occasionally hooking up.

Adrian returned to college after the trip and all seemed well, until seven months later when he got a call from a detective with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. As it turns out, the girl had used a fake ID to get into the club. She was actually 15 years old at the time. Her mom filed a complaint when she found out what had happened.

Asked to return to Miami to answer some questions, Adrian took a bus back to Florida. He explained to the detective that everything was consensual, and that he’d assumed the girl must have been 18 or older since she was in the club. Officers recorded his statement, thanked him for his co-operation, handcuffed him and placed him under arrest. Unable to post the $40,000 bond set by a judge, Adrian remained in jail for nearly eight months. It was the first and only time he’d ever been arrested.

In Florida, as in most other states, the fact that the girl was a willing participant was not a defense. Having admitted to the affair and facing some twenty years in prison, Adrian had no choice but to plead guilty to four counts of lewd and lascivious battery of a person under 16. That guilty plea guaranteed he'd spend the rest of his life listed on Florida’s sex offender registry.

Study after study has shown that our sex offender registries are utterly ineffective at reducing sexual violence, and that public notification about sex offenders may actually increase recidivism by making reintegration into society nearly impossible. But what Adrian and Shawna’s stories highlight is a more general problem with our approach to sex offenders: In our zeal to protect children and get tough on crime, we have allowed our criminal justice system to run amok — expanding categories and exacting punishments that upon closer inspection few of us would really condone.

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Five years after his guilty plea, Adrian had been rejected from more jobs than he could count. Unable to find housing that complied with a Miami ordinance that prevents registrants from living within 2,500 feet of any public or private school, daycare center or playground, Adrian was was forced into homelessness. He slept in a car parked in a lot — one of the few places sex offenders are actually allowed to reside. His college career was over, as was any hope he ever harbored of having a productive life. Then, two years ago, almost a decade after his conviction, Adrian failed to properly register his whereabouts with the police. As a result, he was sentenced to three years in prison.

There are more than 800,000 Americans who are now required to register as sex offenders. And contrary to popular belief, violent serial pedophiles do not fill the ranks of the registered. Rather, a wide swath of sexual thoughts and actions can lead to the lifetime of stigmatization that being on the sex offender registry entails.

In the recent moral panic over kids sending around naked pictures, 20 states passed anti-sexting laws. Thirty states require registration for consensual sex between teenagers, half a dozen require registration for offenses related to prostitution, and a dozen more for urinating in public. Looking at illicit pictures regularly lands people on the registry, and perhaps most curiously, the Supreme Court has held that just drawing pictures of children engaged in sexual acts can be grounds for criminal prosecution.

While it is entirely reasonable that we try to guard against predatory sexual behavior, it is unreasonable to allow the sex offender registry — originally designed as a private investigative tool for law enforcement — to spiral out of control as it has.

Rather than narrowly target a very few dangerous offenders and allow them to be monitored by law enforcement, we have morphed our registry into a massive instrument of public censure and marginalization, while utterly failing to advance the purpose for which it was created. The social science is unequivocal: the registry doesn’t make us safer, or reduce sexual violence. What it does is ruin hundreds of thousands of lives — the lives of people like Adrian and Shawna — in a vain attempt to put a human face on our fears.

David Feige is a former public defender, the co-creator of the TNT series “Raising the Bar” and the author of “Indefensible.” “Untouchable,” his documentary feature about sex offender laws, won the Best New Documentary Director prize at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival.