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Friday, May 14, 2010

Legal Question: Who Should Be on the Sex Offender Registry?

I have a journalistic and legal quandary. I'd like your input.

I received in the mail a court document—signed and stamped by the clerk of courts, receipt attached... it's legit. The document outlines an individual's conviction and sentence for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of "attempted sexual imposition." (Not rape, apparently: no penetration.) The crime was committed several years ago, in another state prior to the existence of our sex offender registry statutes. Subsequent statutes in that state appear to have required that individual to register as a sex offender for the past crime.

That individual currently resides in South Dakota. Yet that individual does not appear on our sex offender registry.

Now I'm still reviewing the relevant statutes. It appears that the same crime committed in South Dakota would not land an individual on the registry. SDCL 22-24B-1 includes felony sexual contact with a minor under 16 and sexual contact with a person incapable of consenting as sex crimes. But that statute also includes crimes committed in other states that land a person on that state's sex offender registry.

Now I'm not entirely comfortable with the existence of the sex offender registry. We don't have a murder or manslaughter registry (do we, Mr. Janklow?). We don't have a drug dealer or embezzler or DUI registry. Certainly all ex-convicts face criminal background checks and uncomfortable questions whenever they apply for jobs. But do we not impose this special legal burden on any other class of criminals, any of whom arguably pose as much social danger as sex offenders.

Still, the law is the law. If we have a sex offender registry, sex offenders are expected to register.

So some questions for you, gentle readers:
  1. Under what circumstances can a sex offender from another state legitimately avoid registering on South Dakota's sex offender list?
  2. Who does more harm—a man who gropes a 15-year-old, a man who kills a motorcyclist, or a woman who embezzles half a million dollars? (Feel free to expand the question with comparisons to other crimes of your choice.)
  3. South Dakota requires lifetime registration of every sexual offender. Our neighbors in North Dakota notify communities only of high-risk offenders. Explains North Dakota:
    If the community was notified about every offender, it would dilute the usefulness of the information about the few offenders who pose a very serious risk to the public. Public notification about low-risk offenders may have the unintended effect of making them more risky. An employed sex offender living in a known location and who is participating in offender treatment is preferable to one unemployed, transient, and with no incentive to complete treatment [Office of the Attorney General, North Dakota Sex Offender Website FAQ #17].

    Should we change our registry to publicize the names of only the high-risk offenders?
Bonus statistic: According to this 2009 PDF map from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, South Dakota has more registered sex offenders per 100,000 population than California. The national average is 228 per 100,000; South Dakota has 325 per 100,000, the eighth-highest rate in the nation.


  1. In what capacity are you being sent such a document? What are you expected to do with it?

    Like many of our laws, the sex offender laws in South Dakota are stupidly capricious. Teen-age misadventures are put in the same category as serious predations. They do more damage than they prevent.

    Obviously, they need some intelligent revision. But in South

  2. I'm being sent the document in the hope that I will publish that document. I'm trying to figure out whether publishing that document is newsworthy. The individual concerned is not involved in any pending sexual-offender litigation or investigation. The only news angle I can think of to the story is the state government side: if the individual should indeed be on the list, then the state is asleep at the switch, demonstrating favoritism, or bound by some ruling or exception that I haven't been able to determine yet. Dr. Newquist, your journalistic and legal thoughts?

    The FAQ explanation from ND gives me pause; it backs up your statement that lists like these do more harm than good. People who commit crimes still have to live and work... unless they are such threats to social order that we should lock them away and feed them on the state dime for the rest of their lives.

  3. This sending of a document listing a sex offender for publication is very peculiar. South Dakota changed its procedures for the sex offender listings and included a felony penalty for using them purposes of harassment. Now the listing is kept by the Attorney General's office, and you have to register online to obtain access to it. Do you know just who sent you the document? I would be strange if someone connected with the AG office did so.

    As for the journalistic aspect, I can't see any news value unless the subject poses an imminent threat to someone's well-being or safety. It seems to have only gossip value.

    As far as journalistic policy, the AP Stylebook and Libel Manual provides the typical policy: "In a society in which standards of right living are recognized by most people, any accusation that a member of society has violated such standards must be injurious. Members of a community establish in the minds of others an estimate of what they are believed to be. Injury to that reputation may mean business, professional or social ruin." So any pubication of such information must be justified on the basis of whether the threat the person poses justifies damage or ruin of his ability to function as a member of the community. There seems no news value in the publication of the document you were sent.

    The Supreme Court, in the case of a former prostitute who was a rehabilitated motherkl and member of a community found that when her past was publicized the publication of past incidents violated her right to pursue and obtain happiness. I don't think the use of sex offender listings has been challenged on this basis, but I am sure this ruling is what the North Dakota AG has in mind and why the South Dakota law was made more restrictive.

  4. Please excuse all the typos. I was rushing to keep an appointment.


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