Shawna is a 35-year-old woman who is legally prohibited from taking her kids to the park. That’s because she’s a sex offender.
Years earlier, on her 19th birthday, Shawna and her friends were drinking and celebrating. A teen boy expressed interest in her, and they slept together. He turned out to be 14 years old. His mother notified the authorities.
Now Shawna is spending the rest of her life on the sex offender registry, even though the mother of two is obviously no threat to children.
The Marshall Project recently released a short video interview with Shawna; it’s part of Untouchable, a documentary by David Feige* about sex offender laws. I challenge anyone to watch the interview (embedded below) and not feel heartbroken for Shawna. This is a woman who made a mistake as a teenager—with another teenager—and will be paying for it the rest of her life. Employers have fired her when they learned about her status. She struggles to explain to her kids why their mother faces so many restrictions, and she must deal with the pariah status afforded to people who have been branded with “lewd or indecent proposals/acts to child” on a national online database.
Shawna’s story is just one more example of why sex offender registries are cruel and unjust. For every truly dangerous predator on the list, there are countless others who carry the “sex offender” label because they sexted a fellow teen or failed to realize they were hooking up with someone on the wrong side of the age-of-consent line. These people are very unlikely to reoffend, so there’s little practical reason to continue shaming them by maintaining a public list of their names.