Listed for Life

In some states, people face a lifetime of restrictions for nonviolent offenses committed decades ago.

If you’ve ever accessed a state sex offender registry online, you know you can search for a list of the mug shots, home addresses, and registered vehicles of the offenders residing in your neighborhood. From the point of view of an offender, there’s a lot more to being on the list than showing up in offender searches. Once a person is in the registry, he or she faces a thicket of reporting requirements lasting anywhere from five years to a lifetime.

In many states, sex offenders must report their place of employment or schooling, which may then be listed online alongside their home address. They must regularly check in with law enforcement. If they’re convicted of a less serious crime—indecent exposure, for example—usually they only have to make an annual visit to a police station. But more serious crimes may require a check-in every three months.

If a registered sex offender moves to another state, he or she must provide written notice of relocation to local police within a narrow window of time. If you move to Maine, for example, you have just 24 hours after moving to notify law enforcement of your relocation and new address. Offenders who are homeless in Kansas must report to local law enforcement every three days. In Indiana, it’s every seven days.

How long you have to register for, and how difficult it is to get off the registry, varies greatly by state, as you can see from the map below. At the stricter end of the spectrum: All sex offenders in California and South Carolina must comply with registration requirements for life, regardless of the crimes committed. Compare this with the rules in Utah, where many offenders are removed from the registry after just 10 years.

Usually, the more serious the crime, the longer the registration period. Take Missouri. If you’re under 21 and convicted of having consensual sex with someone older than 14, you benefit from a special “Romeo and Juliet” exception that allows you to petition for removal after two years. But if you’re 21 or older and convicted of having sex with a 16-year-old, you can petition only after 10 years. Most other sex crimes in Missouri carry lifetime registration requirements.

What does petitioning to get off a registry entail? That also varies. First, sex offenders have to figure out whether they’re eligible to file such a petition, which likely requires help from a lawyer. In Colorado, offenders file a petition in court and go to their assigned hearing, where a judge decides whether or not they should be removed. In New York, once a registered offender files a petition, the judge forwards it to a five-person Board of Examiners of Sex Offenders, appointed by the governor. The board issues a recommendation on the petition, which goes back to the judge, who then decides whether or not registrants are likely to reoffend, based on evidence about their criminal record and any treatment they’ve received.

The petition process involves filing fees and potential legal fees. In Alabama, offenders have to pay a $200 filing fee, which cannot be waived for lack of funds. They may need a lawyer if they move from the state where they were convicted to a new state, where sex offenses might have different legal names and different registration requirements. The legal issues are sufficiently complex that some states, like New York, provide a right to counsel for an appeal of a sex offender registration requirement.

Fifteen states have no process at all for petitioning to be removed from the registry. This could change in some places, though. In California, a lifetime-registration state, the Sex Offender Management Board recently proposed introducing a petition process that would take into account the type of crime committed and the risk of reoffending. This means that low-level offenders—say, people who exposed their genitals in public—might have an opportunity to remove their personal information from the registry, where they are currently listed alongside repeat violent offenders.

In many states, failure to meet registration requirements is a felony, and jeopardizes an offender’s chances of getting off the registry. A man in Mississippi was recently found guilty of violating his registration requirements because he unknowingly registered an address that was too close to a school. In Chicago, sex offenders have been arrested for failing to register, even though busy law enforcement offices actually turned them away. It all adds up to a system with little room for mercy.

Read the first, second, fourth, and fifth parts of this series on sex offender laws.

*Correction, Aug. 13: Due a production error, the map of minimum registration duration for sex offenders originally misstated that Hawaii’s minimum duration is five years and Ohio’s is 10. The minimum registration duration is life in Hawaii and 15 years in Ohio.

Update, Aug. 13: This map reflects the default minimum registration requirement for sex offenders in each state. In some states, however, certain offenders may petition for removal from the registry after a shorter period of time. See above for an example of how the petition process works in Missouri.