Stranger danger?: Reforming Connecticut's sex offender registry
There’s a saying that it takes a village to raise a child, and in many ways it’s true. Parents and guardians rely heavily on teachers, coaches and other caretakers to pick up the slack and provide a protective environment for their kids outside of the home.
Families depend on people like Laura Ramos and Christopher Merchant. Monday through Friday parents counted on Ramos, a young mother herself, to safeguard their students as a special education teacher at Central High School in Bridgeport. On the weekends, Merchant was trusted to instruct and encourage dozens of young athletes as the vice president of Plainfield’s Little League baseball team. It’s people like Ramos and Merchant, young professionals who have dedicated their careers to children, that bring parents peace of mind, give young people a role model and allow a community to thrive.
We can trust them, right?
In January, Ramos was sentenced to 10 years after pleading no-contest on two counts of second-degree sexual assault. Days later, Merchant was arrested after he allegedly used the internet to solicit sex from a 14-year-old boy. Child pornography was later found on his iPhone.
In addition to serving time, Ramos is also required to register as a sex offender. Should Merchant be found guilty, he’ll do the same. But even as the Connecticut sex offender registry list grows longer, the assaults persist. Is the registry the solution to sexual violence or just an outdated system?
As controversy around the registry mounts and calls for its reform are made, the question remains: Is the registry today doing what it’s intended to do?
Many would argue yes. Proponents of the registry assert that communities, and victims especially, deserve access to this kind of information in order to protect themselves, and that perpetrators surrendered their right the privacy the moment they committed their crime. Others disagree, arguing that the severe restrictions that come with being on the registry inhibit reintegration, rendering it counterproductive.
The idea of a sexual registry as a legally mandated database dates back to the late 80s. In 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered in his small town of St. Joseph, Minn. Five years later, 7-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by her neighbor in New Jersey. These two heinous cases of violence against children are credited with sparking a national outrage that led to the passage of extensive legislation with the express purpose of penalizing individuals convicted of sex crimes.
The Jacob Wetterling Act of 1993 required any person convicted of a state offense against a minor to make their address known to law enforcement for 10 years after their release. Megan’s Law, enacted just one year later, required that convicts not only make their personal information available to law enforcement, but that the community be notified as well.
"We respect people's rights, but there is no right greater than a parent's right to raise a child in safety.” said then-President Clinton during a 1996 radio address. “That's why the law should follow those who prey on America's children wherever they go, state to state, town to town.”
This legislation was groundbreaking, as well as remarkably liberal in terms of expanding governmental power. The federal government was now able to deprive convicted sexual predators of their right to privacy, among other uniquely American prerogatives. The registry's broad scope and invasive nature are at the center of why it’s controversial today, but 20 years ago public opinion was overwhelmingly favorable.
In 1998, The Washington Post profiled the Doyles, a young family in suburban Philadelphia. Each state was to decide for itself the manner and fashion in which to publicize a convict’s information. Pennsylvania opted for an especially radical approach: sending Virginia Doyle’s 6-year-old home from school with a “sex offender release notice” in his backpack.
A long, careful discussion about Megan Kanka followed between the Doyles and their children that afternoon. “I feel more comfortable, knowing they'll be aware,” Doyle said.
“So much has changed since I was a child,” a New Jersey mother told the Washington Post. “You never locked doors; now you lock every door. Maybe this is just something else we have to learn to live with."
Widespread support for the registry was anticipated by lawmakers. During this period the media inundated audiences with startlingly high figures for recidivism. A fear of “stranger danger” was drilled into the minds of children across the nation. Parents were told to rest assured - the government was diligently compiling the names of all of these perverted individuals onto a neat list.
In the decades since the laws were first enacted, much of what was considered fact at the time has been debunked. Recidivism rates have been revealed to be generally lower for sexual offenses than other crimes, and we know now that strangers are often the least of our worries.
“I was a kid who grew up through this in the 80s when ‘stranger danger’ started, I heard the stories and watched the news.” Beth Hamilton, associate director at the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said. “It’s much easier to move through the world worrying about a stranger, instead of every single person you come in contact with.”
But that’s just not reality, Hamilton argues. Among its many objectives, the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, or simply the Alliance, seeks to change the common perception of who a sex offender is, especially among kids.
“We go into classrooms and say ‘close your eyes and imagine that a sex offender just walked through the door’ and when we name the traits of this person, [kids say] ‘white, overweight, drives a white van’ and then we have conversations about why that mythology is so harmful,” Hamilton explained.
The registry has not evolved alongside our understanding of sex crimes and their perpetrators. The Connecticut registry, with its nearly 5,500 offenders, has remained largely stagnant in structure and function since its last major reform 1998. Across the state, many people are calling for a total overhaul.
“The sex offender registry came about because of a heightened sense of stranger danger,” attorney Christine Rapillo, chief public defender for Connecticut, said. “All it does is identify everybody. [It] doesn’t determine how actually dangerous anybody is, it just puts every one of statutorily designated crimes on a list.”
Rapillo is a vocal critic of the registry as it exists today. She argues that not only does it lull people into a false sense of security, but it’s actually counter-productive. The harsh sanctions imposed on registered sex offenders often leave them unemployed or homeless, impeding their reintegration.
For many advocacy groups, reintegration is a primary concern, considered to be a key factor in preventing future instances of violence.
“We really understand the impacts that sexual violence has on individuals...but we also have to think sensibly about the larger, system-based responses that we have,” Hamilton said. “We fully support offenders having what they need to be reintegrated into society and successful. Ultimately what we know for offenders to be successful and not recidivate is access to support systems, jobs, safe and stable housing, education.”
Amanda Devan, a police sergeant with the Naugatuck police department, has dedicated much of her career to victim advocacy and the investigation of sex crimes. In addition to serving in law enforcement, Devan is also on the board of the victim advocacy nonprofit Jane Doe No More. She argues that the registry is not only theoretically flawed, but simply nonviable. She calls Connecticut’s registry underfunded and ineffective. With only a handful of state officers assigned to the unit tasked with managing thousands of offenders, she argues, it’s impossible to ensure compliance.
“There’s no way to track people. There’s no checks and balances to ensure these people are living where they’re supposed to,” Devan said. “Go ask Bridgeport how many people are noncompliant, go ask how many in New Haven, how many in Waterbury, in Hartford and New London. The police departments don’t have the resources to do it and the state police are far understaffed to keep up with it.”
However, there are some that see value in a public, readily accessible registry and harsh penalties for convicts. Donna Palomba, founder of Jane Doe No More and herself a survivor of sexual violence, argues that these things are critical to avoiding revictimization.
“I do think that it’s so important to keep the community safe from the core offenders of sexual violence,” Palomba said.“We know that they repeat, and so it’s important that we do everything we can.”
Sandra Wilson, a criminal justice program manager at Post University and board member at Jane Doe No More, shares Palomba’s sentiment.
“Just because you’re on the registry that doesn’t equate to you being a pedophile or a violent person…[People who partake in sex in public or peeing in public] end up on the list too,” Wilson said. “So I do think that reform may be necessary, but not abolition. Ultimately [it’s] not perfect, but I do believe we have a moral obligation to keep our public safe.”
Few contest the notion that it’s time for the registry to be reexamined. It’s how this re-examination takes place and what any resulting reforms might entail, that’s been hotly debated in recent years.
In 2015, the Connecticut sentencing commission began to reexamine the state’s treatment of sex offenders, questioning the “system of assessment, management, treatment, and sentencing.” The commission proposed the development of a risk-based registry, which would be divided in two parts. The first would be a public registry divulging the names of those determined to be a risk to public safety. The second list, which would be available to law enforcement only, would include everyone else.
The commission developed their proposal into a bill in 2017, but it failed to pass. Regardless, the commission continues its push for the registry’s complete overhaul.
“I think it’s very solid policy,” said Rapillo, who serves on the commission's board. “It doesn’t at this point take people off the registry, but it does give people the opportunity to reintegrate back into society by making it less public, and I think that’s an excellent first step.”
Although the legislation being proposed by the commission has the full endorsement of the Alliance, the organization wants to be clear that it only supports registry reform that is rooted in “victim-based decisions.”
“I think the changes in the registry are good. But we don’t want to go back in time, we only want the changes to go forward….we don’t want people already on the registry asking to be taken off or moved to the law enforcement only registry, we don’t want to let victims down,” Lucy Nolan, director of policy and public relations with the Alliance, said. “All of the legislation we work on is always about the victim.”
Although the Alliance and Jane Doe No More are alike in their dedication to serving victims, Palomba still favors a more conservative approach than the one the commission and its proponents are advocating.
“There is a difference between a perpetrator who violates another person versus peeing in public or things that don’t involve another person,” Palomba said. “But that’s a slippery slope, and I do think that registry serves a big purpose. We just need to do everything that we can to ensure the safety of our community and also to not re-victimize.”
For others, like Amanda Devan, the idea of implementing a risk-based registry is appalling.
“That’s a completely ludicrous idea, a sex offense is a sex offense,” she said. “If you’re on the registry you had to have done something that was enough of a crime to put you there. Ask a victim what a medium risk sex offender is… If I was a victim I would say absolutely not because what makes what happened to me any less affecting than what happened to somebody else?”
Many look back on the government’s behavior during the mid-nineties as rash, short-sighted and even reactionary. The sex offender registry was conceived and adopted with such fervor that its potential limitations and effects were largely overlooked. As a result, we’re left with the task of settling the registry's inherent flaws, like the inept letter system.
In spite of debate and differing perspectives, there is one point on which all advocates agree; the vital role of education in both serving victims today and preventing sexual violence tomorrow.
These crimes continues to be heavily stigmatized, and some suggest that erasing the sense of shame commonly felt by victims is the first step in addressing the issue.
“Education is required. We need to talk about the fact that over 70 percent of victims know their rapist, whether it be acquaintance rape, date rape or child sexual abuse,” Palomba said. “Most importantly we need to dispel the myth that the perpetrator is the creepy guy in the alley...but I think that comes with education not so much related to the registry.”
Hamilton of the Alliance agrees, saying that the importance of early, continuous education cannot be emphasized enough.
“We believe education should start basically from birth and never end,” Hamilton said. “We focus less on stranger danger and a lot more on consent, healthy boundaries, bodily autonomy. My 2-year-old right now can tell you ‘my body, my choice.’ Those are the kind of prevention models we want to have for our kids. We don’t just want to say ‘don’t take the candy from the man in the van’ because it’s so unlikely that’s going to be their experience.”
“If we actually want to move towards keeping our children safe and having no new perpetrators of sexual violence, that’s what you focus on.”