Sex Offenders and Civil Rights

A law student I admire sent me a note not long ago asking, in effect, whether those calling for the reform of sex offender legislation were opposed to punishment for those engaged in real acts of sexual misconduct. The hypothetical case she used as an example was that of a 50-year-old man who abused a six-year-old girl. Such conduct, of course, calls for a response by the law; child abuse is wrong. No one is asking that it be legalized.

But the current regime of sex offender legislation does far more than target such offenses. It encompasses an ever-widening course of conduct, and it imposes ever-more draconian consequences. Reform efforts are focused on a sense of proportion between offense and consequence. These efforts also ask that lawmakers and the courts give ample consideration to whether some offenses ought to carry criminal consequences at all.
I spoke a week ago at a conference on the reform of sex offender legislation and was moved almost to tears by what I saw: Adults living almost in fear of government and others. Attendees at the conference wore name badges that simply gave their first name and their state of origin. When I questioned why this was so, one participant told me they were afraid of retaliation by government actors. That struck me as almost paranoid, but the paranoia has its source in laws at once so savage and harsh that I understand the fear. It is, after all, a criminal offense is 13 states to urinate in public: doing so will land you a place on the sex offender registry, and the communal scorn that comes of this. No wonder people are afraid.
While at the conference, one man asked whether the treatment of sex offenders was a civil rights issue. Had the time not come for concerted legal efforts to challenge laws that are overbroad in application and often cruel and unusual in application.
I am not sure how much relief the courts are prepared to offer. My sense is that reform of these laws is primarily a legislative effort, and that nothing will be as successful in promoting change as grassroots efforts by those harmed by these laws. Judges, for example, are afraid, often reluctant to act when they must face re-election or retention hearings. Even in the federal courts, where judges have lifetime appointments, political pressure can be keen: Public hysteria is focused now on United States District Court Judge Robert N. Chatigny, a nominee to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit: Muckrakers claim the judge is soft on sex offenders and therefore unworthy of confirmation. This is scary stuff. Who wants to stand next to a sex offender?
But lawyers can play a role. We can litigate cases or controversies arising under state and federal constitutions. Ohio's Jeff Gamso just won a spectacular victory under the Ohio constitution, persuading the state's Supreme Court that it's sex offender classification system involved a violation of the state's separation of powers clause. Other states have similar doctrines and practices. Lawyers need a clearing house to share this information.
What's needed are lawyers willing to give of their time to help push reform. Needed even more is an organization to provide administrative support for the lawyers. 
Someone asked a question from the floor of the Washington conference last week about what it would take to form a committee of lawyers willing to support the reform. Here's the answer: Your question has prompted one lawyer, me, to declare a willingness to serve. I'll be reaching out to other lawyers with an aim of finding folks in each of the 50 states. But now I have a question: When we've lined up all these lawyers, we'll need help moving paper and gathering information. Where will we find that support?

Also listed under: Sex Offenders and Justice

Comments: (14)

  • There is more support than you can imagine. The pe...
    There is more support than you can imagine. The people at that conference were but a small taste of those out there hiding behind screen names. The amount of research that we have amassed would amaze most people.
    We have cataloged most court decisions from across the land. News stories, personal stories, and stories about political corruption.
    There are people with skills in writing briefs, and other court papers that are in this movement (or we know of those that are willing to help).
    I myself have spent the last 2 years studying this thing we call a Constitution.
    I have found the key to unraveling the whole ball of yarn.
    When I have completed my work, I will share it with you and your band of lawyers. I will even ask you to find loopholes in my argument so that I may polish it before it is brought before the courts.
    This argument is a monumental game changer (or so I think anyways.) It may just reform the entire Justice System as we know it...
    Posted on July 3, 2010 at 6:24 pm by Avendora
  • Thank you so much for speaking at the Washington C...
    Thank you so much for speaking at the Washington Conference. Your words and insight made a world of difference to a lot of people. Here in Georgia, we are working to put into practice the ideas and suggestions you gave. You are very much appreciated!! If there is anything we can do to help you or those you find willing to work for reform, please contact us at
    Posted on July 4, 2010 at 11:20 am by Trading My Sorrows
  • Yes, Norm, I agree that you will find a LOT of gra...
    Yes, Norm, I agree that you will find a LOT of grassroots paralegal support! We at the conference were just the tip of the iceberg. Our Maryland group is much newer and smaller than Georgia's but we, too, stand ready to help in any way we can. Contact us at
    Posted on July 5, 2010 at 2:50 am by FAIR
  • Thank you so much for your words of wisdom at the ...
    Thank you so much for your words of wisdom at the conference Mr. Pattis.
    Believe me when I say that WE as a group are more than willing to help in any way.
    Posted on July 5, 2010 at 3:09 am by Tammy
  • Norm Here's a review of the news conference with s...
    Here's a review of the news conference with short clips forrm some of the speakers. Thought you might ne interested.
    Posted on July 5, 2010 at 5:41 am by Michael Machinatious
  • There is so much fear, and it's not irrational or ...
    There is so much fear, and it's not irrational or paranoia, of standing up against this heinous mistreatment of citizens. While my son was imprisoned on an internet chat charge, I could speak more freely but with one year of parole, I have to be careful. THEY own him right now and the rules are so ambiguous that they can restructure just about anything that happens into an offense or violation. I still work hard on the issue and we're talking to our representatives but this is touchy stuff. To answer your law student, no one I have talked to wants a real abuser out on the streets. Many, many of us have been on the receiving end of much of this type of abuse and we know the damage it causes. But we are insulted beyond belief to think that we, as victims of rape, incest and molestation are being given the same status as 14 year old over sexed teenage girls.
    Posted on July 5, 2010 at 6:49 am by esbashar1
    Posted on July 5, 2010 at 12:06 pm by Mike
  • NewYork1....Norm, if you can find the attorneys, w...
    NewYork1....Norm, if you can find the attorneys, we can find the people for research. We have more people than you can imagine.
    Posted on July 6, 2010 at 11:25 am by Joanne Johni
  • Citizens for Change, America http://www.cfcamerica...
    Citizens for Change, America
    Our non-profit organization has been working day and night since 2006 to bring into the open the darkness which are these insane laws.
    Politicians and Legislators, eager to pass any law which will make the Public Feel Better, Safer and Protected have instead done just the opposite. Cast countless men, women and children into banishment from society and homelessness with the same fervor as Hitler done to the Jewish People.
    Once labeled a sex offender, from the words of Congressman Bobby Scott... Life is over.
    These laws ban a person from work, housing or any type of social acceptance.. prison or death is the inevitable outcome of anyone labeled sex offender. Very few escape the two outcomes above once labeled a Sex Offender.
    How can America as a whole, a country based on freedom, justice and liberty condone such branding of a new class of people.. the outcasts..How can we send troops to kill others in foreign countries who stifle freedom... and at the same time enslave our men, women and children to a lifetime of prison or banishment?
    Posted on July 8, 2010 at 8:11 am by adamwalshact
  • Citizens for Change, America will do anything to h...
    Citizens for Change, America will do anything to help your efforts...
    Note: These lawmakers know of the abuse of current laws..they have been told by professionals and heard testimony from countless victims of these laws. We are talking about children of ex offenders who are being banished from society, denied basic rights of life and liberty... and still these lawmakers seek to fund, support and create these totally unconstitutional laws. Our website and many others have volumes of information, facts, studies, and quotes to supply anyone with factual information in changing these laws.
    info at if you need to contact us.
    Posted on July 8, 2010 at 8:15 am by adamwalshact
  • I would have loved to attend that conference, but ...
    I would have loved to attend that conference, but I am on the sex offender registry in Nebraska and according to our laws, I wouldn't legally be able to attend. We in Nebraska have lost our right to travel without a very complicated system of notifying law enforcement.
    Posted on July 9, 2010 at 2:13 am by Alfitz
  • Everyone is painted with the same broad brush, and...
    Everyone is painted with the same broad brush, and IMHO, its because Americans are uptight about sex in general. Whether it be pornography or homosexuality, we can't discuss sex openly. Because so many are ignorant and/or naive and are unable to formulate an honest educated opinion of their own, they take everything they hear from politicians as fact.
    Posted on August 3, 2010 at 9:16 am by realsexoffenderissues
  • sex offenders and civil rights
    How in god's name can they claim that SO registration is not punitive, but merely a mechanism for protecting the public? For one, the registry doesn't just make life hard for the registrant, it maims whole families. In addition, the registry is A PRESUMPTION of future illegal and immoral activity. It is punishment IN ADVANCE of something you MIGHT do, often times an act for which the registrant has shown no proclivity or interest in, as in the case of possessors of cp and the often unfounded fear that their next step MIGHT be making actual contact with a child, even though there is no evidence of such past behavior. The registry is a punishment against future behavior. What is this? "Minority Report"?
    Posted on November 27, 2010 at 7:55 am by Claire
  • workers for reform
    I took too long with my first comment and my exhaustive response. SO I'll keep this one short. My husband is a registered offender and we need help against the broad brush of what HAS become a civil rights issue. We will help in any way we can when you gather your lawyers for this cause!
    Posted on January 27, 2011 at 9:03 pm by Mercycamerunning

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