A new sex offender law took effect in North Carolina on Thursday, restricting offenders’ freedom of movement and association by barring them from libraries, recreational parks, pools, and fairs. The law is designed to replace a previous measure that a federal court ruled unconstitutional in April. It will do nothing to stop sex crimes while continuing to isolate, penalize, and ostracize fully rehabilitated offenders who are attempting to rejoin society.
North Carolina’s previous sex offender law was a constitutional monstrosity that essentially gave prosecutors—as well as law enforcement and probation officers—the power to punish offenders who dared to leave their house. Under the statute, offenders could not be present in any place used by children. Its hazy, sweeping regulations were interpreted to forbid former offenders from attending G-rated movies, eating at fast food restaurants with attached play areas, walking in or near recreational facilities, and going to church. Former offenders were also barred from visiting hospitals, museums, malls, shopping centers, and community colleges, because children might be present. (Bizarrely, the law applied to offenders whose crimes did not involve minors.)
A federal judge struck down most of the previous law, holding that it was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad in violation of the First Amendment. So North Carolina simply re-enacted it with several tweaks. The new version explicitly lists the kind of places where sex offenders may not go and limits its application to offenders whose crimes involved minors. While the old law barred offenders from “any place where minors gather for regularly scheduled educational, recreational or social programs,” the new one bars them from places where minors “frequently congregate”—including libraries, amusements parks, recreational facilities, and swimming pools. Moreover, the most stringent new provisions apply only to offenders whose crimes involved minors, and only bar offenders from no-go zones when minors are actually present.
Then, for good measure, the revised law adds a provision excluding sex offenders from fairgrounds during any state fair.
Will these restrictions pass constitutional muster? Probably not: The federal judge who struck down the previous version seemed concerned that the state placed such a heavy burden on offenders’ First Amendment rights without any actual evidence that the law achieves its goals. Yes, the new law is more specific, likely resolving constitutional vagueness issues. But its breadth remains sweeping. The law still prohibits sex offenders from engaging in quintessential First Amendment activities—such as protesting in a classic public forum, like a park—without proof that these restrictions further any government interest. Indeed, the proffered justification of sex offender restrictions, that they protect women and children, appears to be false. Instead of protecting the public, laws like North Carolina’s only prevent former offenders from reintegrating into society, potentially making recidivism more likely.
After years of deferring to legislatures’ fear-mongering, federal courts have finally begun to recognize that former sex offenders have constitutional rights, too. As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit recently put it, turning offenders into “moral lepers” doesn’t make women and children any safer; it only satisfies our misguided desire to push them to the margins of society. The courts should recognize North Carolina’s new law as the constitutional violation it obviously is and strike it down. We’ve seen what happens when legislatures purport to protect women and children by restricting others’ rights. It rarely ends well for anyone.