Federal judge finds that Colorado’s sex offender registry can impose what amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Judges in six other states have issued similar decisions, but the Supreme Court is yet to revisit the issue.
The three men who challenged Colorado’s Sex Offender Registration Act were sentenced to probation. Two of them also served 90 days in jail. Later, they found that appearing in the state’s online registry of sex offenders made it impossible to lead a normal life. Last week, a federal judge recognized what anyone dealing with the burdens, obstacles, and dangers of life on the registry knows: Its punitive impact far outweighs any value it might have in protecting the public, reports Reason. U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch concluded that registration can violate the Eighth Amendment by imposing what amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. His judgment contradicts a 2003 Supreme Court decision describing Alaska’s Sex Offender Registration Act as a “civil regulatory scheme” that only incidentally resulted in humiliation and ostracism.
Matsch argued that “the justices did not foresee the ubiquitous influence of social media,” the proliferation of commercial websites peddling information from sex offender registries, or the cheap scare stories that local news outlets would produce based on that information. Those developments have magnified the life-disrupting potential of registration, as illustrated by the experiences of the Colorado plaintiffs. By forcing sex offenders into this precarious situation, Matsch said, the state is punishing them. State or federal courts have reached the same conclusion in Alaska, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. Now the question is when the Supreme Court will revisit the issue.