March 16, 2017 (Fault Lines) — There’s an awesome short story called The Jigsaw Man, written by Larry Niven (warning: spoilers.) The story is about a guy in prison awaiting a capital trial, which he is certain to lose.
Transplantation of organs has become easy and ubiquitous, and can keep people alive indefinitely… and executed prisoners are one of the main sources of organs. The main character manages to escape his cell, and destroys an organ storage tank before being recaptured. In the last scene we learn the horrible crime that he’s accused of: running red lights. As Niven put it:
The cause of it all was the organ banks. With good doctors and a sufficient flow of material in the organ banks, any taxpayer could hope to live indefinitely. What voter would vote against eternal life? The death penalty was his immortality, and he would vote the death penalty for any crime at all.
As it turns out, Niven was an optimist. We can’t make ourselves immortal, but we’re sure as hell gonna try. And when something bad happens, we’ll pass another bad law (usually named after a victim) to ensure that it never happens again.
Meet Sierah’s Law, a bill pending before the Ohio Senate that would establish a “Violent Offenders Registry” in the same manner as the sex offender registry. The text of the bill as written only mentions aggravated murder, murder, and voluntary manslaughter by name; but, part C of the bill allows the inclusion of “any other offense of violence the attorney general considers necessary to include in the registry.” What prompted this expansion of registration laws?
Sheila Vaculik said Tuesday she doesn’t know whether her daughter, Sierah Joughin, would be alive today if her family had known someone with a violent criminal past lived nearby.
“The sex offender registry that was put into place by legislators worked just like it was meant to that night,” she said. “Law enforcement had contact with the offenders in our area, within hours after Sierah went missing.
“But unfortunately, the man indicted for this crime was not on any list or registry.”
Family and friends then asked for a list of violent offenders.
“We were told no such database exists,” said Howard Ice, Ms. Joughin’s uncle[.]
The solution? Create one, despite the fact that:
It remains unclear whether Ms. Joughin’s alleged killer, James D. Worley, 57, would have needed to register under such a law. His prior abduction-conviction in Lucas County occurred 26 years earlier.
The problem with the sex offender registry isn’t the registry itself, but rather the consequences that go along with it. First and foremost, the fact that the registry is public will make it difficult, if not impossible, to find a job, a place to live, or otherwise support oneself. A close second is that failure to abide by every particular of the registry laws is usually a crime in itself.
For example, if no one will rent you an apartment because you’re on the registry, and you’re living in the streets, that’s a potential violation. If no one will give you a job because they looked you up on the registry, well, you’re going to end up homeless anyway (and most homeless shelters won’t take sex offenders,) so that would be a violation.
It doesn’t matter if you were a high school senior who slept with your sophomore girlfriend, or if you’re the guy in the trenchcoat in the van marked “Free Candy.” Nobody wants you around. Ending up on the registry is essentially a condemnation to a slow and painful death, to the point where Judge Richard Kopf once wrote:
If you are a rational person, your next stop will be the public library. There you can access a computer for free. It is time to begin searching for cheap but painless ways of killing yourself.
The point of the sex offender registry has less to do with protecting the community as it does with retroactively preventing the deaths of Megan Kanka and Adam Walsh. Likewise, Sierah’s Law has less to do with protecting Ohioans than with comforting her family:
“Would my daughter have been found Wednesday alive instead of Friday in a shallow grave seven miles from our home?” Ms. Vaculik asked. “I will never know the answer to that question, and that is the subject of my nightmares.”
Now, Ohio wants an expanded registry, not just for sex crimes and murder, but for “any offense the Attorney General considers necessary.” How long will it be before the Attorney General considers it necessary to include drunk driving, domestic violence … and eventually, running red lights?