Is Sex Offender Registration a Cruel and Unusual Punishment?
Can labeling someone a sex offender be considered a cruel and unusual punishment? Well, a man in Ohio is attempting to argue exactly that before the Ohio Supreme Court. He’s claiming that his mandated 25 years on the Sex Offender Registry, which one judge called an undeserved “scarlet letter,” is a cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, this has become a case that could potentially change the way sex offenders are classified in the United States.
Clark County native Travis Blankenship, 21, had sex twice with a 15-year-old girl in 2011. According to the the Columbus Dispatch, Blankenship was examined by a psychologist who determined that he was not a sexual offender, did not require any sort of treatment, and was unlikely to reoffend. Taking the psychologist’s findings into consideration, the judge sentenced him in 2012 to serve 12 days of a six-month sentence for unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, which is a fourth-degree felony.
Because the girl was 15 at the time, his crime was automatically classified as a Tier II sex offense under Ohio’s Adam Walsh Act, which requires that he register with the Sex Offender Registry for no less than 25 years, with verification of his information twice a year. On March 10, Blankenship’s public defender Katherine Ross-Kinzie presented her oral argument before the Ohio Supreme Court, attempting to prove that this mandatory punishment is “grossly disproportionate” with Blankenship’s offense and thus cruel and unusual punishment, which is unconstitutional.
This is Blankenship’s 2nd appeal after the Second District Ohio Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision upheld the ruling that declared him a sex offender. Before 2007, whether or not someone would have to register as a sex offender was decided by a judge, not an automatic penalty under the law.
Judge Mary Donovan was the dissenter in that decision, writing:
He was punished with a scarlet letter of 25 years duration. This 25 years is part of his punishment and, in my view, is grossly disproportionate in severity to the crime committed.This classification carries significant restraints on Blankenship’s liberty and a social stigma that interferes with employability, travel and housing.
In her oral argument that can be viewed here, Blankenship’s lawyer said that she is not disagreeing that her client is a sex offender under the revised law, but rather that there is a discrepancy between the revised code’s definition and the psychologist’s determination in this particular case.
The idea behind the registry is to publicly notify citizens where sex offenders are located in an effort to protect the public, especially children. People have the right to share this information and even put up fliers notifying residents of local sex offenders, which can easily ostracize those offenders from the community. Failure to register is illegal and could land an offender back in jail. The sex offender registry system has been widely criticized as potentially doing more harm than good, with many people demanding it be reformed. A Law Street issues brief on reforming the Sex Offender Registry can be read here.
The case is still ongoing and the court is not expected to make a decision until later this year. Whatever the court’s ruling is, it may set the tone for future cases that could potentially impact how we define sex offenders.