The general counsel of Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College has some explaining to do. As general counsel and board member of the college, R. Rex Parris professes a dedication to the college’s mission statement. That statement pledges a commitment to seeking justice for “the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, the defenseless and the damned.”
It is hard to find a class of people who better fit that classification than the 700,000-plus souls on the nation’s sex offender registries. While some registrants are no doubt dangerous, the overwhelming majority are not. You can land on a sex offender registry for such offenses as urinating in a public place, teenage sex, sending sexually explicit text messages, or a host of other activities that suggest the world will not be truly safe until virtually everyone is registered.
Politicians make great sport of folks on the registry. You score points among constituents promising to keep your community’s streets safe for children. Who can possibly oppose protecting the innocence of children? But sex offender hysteria is a hoax.
In addition to his roles as general counsel to the Trial Lawyers College, Parris, an exceptionally successful personal injury lawyer, is also mayor of the town of Lancaster in Southern California. It’s hard to say whether he has broader political ambitions. But he does understand how to cater to fear. He’s proposed a municipal ordinance that would prohibit anyone on the sex offender registry from using the city’s parks, swimming pools, libraries, museums and movie theaters. The ordinance also prohibits registrants from decorating their homes for Halloween. Violate this ordinance and face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
This is the sort of mindless, “one-size-fits-all” sort of thinking that makes victims of innocent people, the sort of people the Trial Lawyers College exists to represent. Politicians and hysterics conclude that all people on a sex offender registry are “child molesters.” The facts speak otherwise. Even law enforcement officers recognize that the nation’s sex offender registries are over-inclusive, containing so many names that it is impossible to monitor those who might pose a threat to harm a child.
One would think a lawyer committed to justice would be asking hard questions about a law designed to make an internal exile of a man or woman. Want to meet a person voiceless, defenseless and damned? Look no further than internal exiles on the sex offender registry.
I’ve known Rex for almost 15 years. I know that success did not come easily to him. He overcame personal obstacles and set high goals he worked tirelessly to achieve. He’s now wealthy, powerful and a leader in his profession. I look at him and I realize that dreams can come true. His certainly have.
But is the price of fulfilling these dreams forgetting his roots, his commitments to the downtrodden and to ordinary people in extraordinary trouble?
I’ve a question for Mayor Parris: Can you really wear two hats this week during Lancaster’s consideration of the new sex offender ordinance? Can you serve as general counsel to a national organization seeking to provide justice for individuals while at the same time seeking an ordinance that stigmatizes and isolates people based on little more than hysteria and misinformation? Justice requires individualized assessments of risk; it is not administered with a meat cleaver.
Rex, table the proposal for these new ordinances. Study the data about how individuals find themselves on a registry and why. Understand that recidivism rates for those convicted of sex offenses are among the lowest of any class of offenders. Do justice. Listen to those who try to meet with you to drive away misconceptions and fear. Justice requires it -- the very justice you counsel the Trial Lawyers College to pursue.
I am sure when you listen, you will withdraw support for these new ordinances. They smell of the sort of fear than led Salem to kill accused witches centuries ago. You are better than that. I recall walks with you in the buttes of DuBois, Wyoming where I saw something kinder, gentler and wiser than the mayor who seeks support by manipulating fear.