Monday, September 26, 2005

gosh, margy, why don't you tell us what you really think?

when i first began studying the collateral consequences of felony convictions in the 1990s, there were few authoritative sources on the practice. one of the best was a 1996 50-state report by then-U.S. pardon attorney margaret colgate love. margy served from 1990 to 1997 under presidents bush (I) and clinton (I), and she always provides a tough non-partisan critique of any administration's pardon record. more recently, she prepared a great clemency "resource guide" that offers a starting point for anyone seeking to restore their rights after a felony conviction (more personally, i should add, she helped me make sense of the differing rules governing felon voting rights and their restoration in each state).

today's crimprof blog features an op-ed by ms. love on the new national sex offender public registry. Her main concerns are (1) the registry's data quality; and, (2) the absence of controls on its use. while some hail the registry as a "proactive and meaningful step in protecting a child's life," the former pardon attorney takes a different view -- calling it a "half-baked mean-spirited incitement to vigilante justice."

gosh, margy, why don't you tell us what you really think?

Here are some highlights of ms. love's editorial:
... [it] relies entirely upon unvetted state registries that are notoriously incomplete and inaccurate
... most of [the offenders listed] had very dated and minor convictions, and had had no adverse contact with the law for decades...their houses and offices, marked with a little red flag like they used to put on the door of a plague house in the middle ages.
... outrageous that the federal government -- the Justice Department no less -- would rush to publish a list like this without 1) taking any responsibility for the accuracy of the information on it or warning about its shortcomings; or 2) giving the public any guidance at all about how they are supposed to use it.
... the clear suggestion that all 500,000 registered sex offenders in the United States are "predators" is one of the most irresponsible I've seen come out of the Justice Department, ever.

... the Attorney General is looking into how the FBI can share its criminal history information ...the FBI’s information is almost as unreliable ... [leading to] the same categorical discrimination
... The Justice Department should be trying to address the important privacy and due process issues raised, rather than leading the charge to stir up a public witch-hunt.
... The people most hurt by it are those who are already down and are easy to victimize.
... There are labor organizations and advocacy groups working on the important privacy and due process issues raised by these initiatives, and Human Rights Watch has written a letter to the Attorney General expressing concern about the Sex Offender Registry. Where are the lawyers?

i have not investigated the registry (beyond looking up my neighborhood), but i am troubled by ms. love's report and opinion on its use. but this is a call-to-arms for lawyers -- where are the sociologists and criminologists? i'm afraid it would be a pretty lonely crusade (that might land one in prison if certain movies are to be believed). i'm revising a piece with jeff manza and melissa thompson on ex-felons as a caste-like status group. it seems far-fetched until you see such registries in action and consider their easy extension beyond sex offenders. are sex offenders so different from, say, murderers that we wouldn't create a more comprehensive registry? it could easily encompass anyone convicted (or arrested -- the private search firms use arrest data) on felonies (why not misdemeanors, as long as we have the data?) as an adult (aww heck, why should the juvenile court hoard all those records down in the basement?). the notion of a permanent stain or stigma seems ever more plausible to me in an age of free-and-easy information.

paradoxically, we now have the technology to apply a permanent mark at the very historical moment that life-course criminology establishes that everybody desists from crime. so, at the risk of oversimplifying, here's how i see the mismatch: there are social, political, and (most importantly, in my view) technological pressures toward treating criminality as a fixed characteristic of individuals, even as the science paints a picture of malleability and movement away from crime in adulthood. such pressures will clearly frustrate reintegrative efforts, but unlike ms. love i don't see a way out of the dilemma -- justice department database or not, the information systems genie seems to be out of the bottle. i think the better long-term plan might be for sociologists and criminologists to attempt to provide an unflinching, evidence-based assessment of risk across different offense groups and the relative costs and benefits of stigmatization and reintegration.

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