The XX Factor

Tennessee Rep. Wants to Print “Sex Offender” in Red on Every Sex Offender’s Driver’s License

Matthew Hill, a Tennessee state representative who ran for office with an image of a fetus on his campaign fliers, has entertained the notion that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and previously proposed legislation to force Tennesseans to exclusively speak English while at work, has got another bright idea. Hill is sponsoring a bill that would print the words sex offender—in three places, and in red lettering—on the driver’s licenses of everyone listed on the sex-offender registry in the state. Hill says that he was moved to support the legislation after a constituent raised the specter of sex offenders dropping into schools and day cares and scooping up their children, though he admits he’s never heard of such a thing happening. He added that the law could also come in handy at “malls, grocery stores, retail outlets—all kinds of places where children are.”

At a meeting on Wednesday, Tennessee House transportation committee chair Rep. Vince Dean pushed back against the bill. “Is it your intention to cause that person embarrassment if they, say, go to buy a pack of cigarettes or a pack of Copenhagen?” he asked, adding: “It brings to mind that, maybe, a scarlet letter put on his breast might work as well.”

“Well, if you thought that was necessary,” Hill replied, “that would be fine.”

Like many states, Tennessee already has dozens of regulations for controlling the behavior of released sex offenders, including requiring them to stay 1,000 feet away from schools and day care centers under most circumstances. But the law does allow registered offenders to drop off and pick up their own children at schools, day cares, and rec centers and to attend meetings with administrators, so long as they’ve notified the institution of their sex-offender status at the time of their kid’s enrollment. The state also prints a code on the backs of sex offenders’ driver’s licenses that alerts police to their status and allows inquiring minds to search the state’s registry for the names, locations, and photographs of offenders on the list.

All Hill’s bill would do is increase public shaming of people who are attempting to engage in the most basic activities required to operate as functional members of society, like buying food to eat or providing their children with an education. Hill is cool with sewing “sex offender” onto their sweaters, too, so that they can be pre-emptively shunned without even attempting to interact with another human. Hill’s colleagues in Tennessee don’t appear eager to approve the bill, but Hill’s impulse to extend the reach of the sex-offender registry is part of a national trend. New Jersey passed Megan’s Law, a collection of bills that required sex offenders to publicly register for their crimes, in 1994, in memory of a 7-year-old girl who was raped and killed by a man who had previously been convicted of a sex crime and then released. Since then, sex-offender registries have ballooned across the country, roping in people convicted of crimes like public exposure and prostitution and writing in provisions for where sex offenders who have served their time are allowed to live, work, and idle in their cars. In 2006, Wisconsin passed a law that would require certain sex offenders to wear electronic ankle bracelets monitored by GPS for the rest of their lives.

This is obviously a bad thing for people convicted of sex crimes, but there’s a wider danger to making life after prison seem even worse than prison itself. One 2011 study published in the Journal of Law and Economics found that, while putting sex offenders on a police registry can help deter them from offending again, making those registries public can actually increase recidivism rates. As the study’s authors put it: “convicted sex offenders become more likely to commit crimes when their information is made public because the associated psychological, social, or financial costs make a crime-free life relatively less desirable.” That’s bad for sex offenders who have served their sentences, it’s bad for their kids, and it’s bad for everybody else, too. It may only be good for politicians like Hill, who can beef up the “protecting the children” section of his resume, whether or not his proposal even makes sense.