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Swimmer's assault focuses attention on registries

SAN FRANCISCO — When ex-Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner became a registered sex offender for life last Tuesday, he joined a nationwide list of registered sex criminals that has grown dramatically in recent years to more than 800,000.

Even some who have denounced Turner's six-month jail sentence as too lenient for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman question whether he should spend his life with the stigma and onerous restrictions of a registered sex offender.

They join a growing number of defense attorneys, advocates and judges who are questioning the fairness of applying lifetime, blanket restrictions to expanding definitions of sex crimes that frequently treat first-time offenders the same as serial rapists.

In California, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama it's impossible for people convicted of any sex crime to be removed from the online registries showing their pictures, addresses, convictions and probation details. Offenders have been turned into victims themselves when they are targeted in vigilante attacks or can't find jobs or places to live, critics say.

Stanford University law professor Michele Dauber, who lambasted Turner's sentence as too lenient and is leading a campaign to oust the judge who imposed, said requiring the 21-year-old man to be registered as a sex offender until he dies may be too harsh.

"No one should be defined by their worst decision for the rest of their life," Dauber said in an interview. "Deciding who should be removed, which cases or crimes should qualify would require thoughtful legislation, a fair process and, of course, an unbiased judge."

Dauber stressed there are many criminals who deserve lifetime registration, but said at some point after at least 10 years on the registry Turner should be given a chance to get off it by proving he has successfully rehabilitated himself.

Turner was released from jail Sept. 2 and moved to his parent's home in Bellbrook, Ohio, registering as a sex offender at the Greene County sheriff's office four days after his release from a California jail for good behavior after serving half his sentence. Protesters demonstrated in front of the home before and after his arrival and Turner's parents told police eggs were thrown at the house.

Advocates for sex crime victims insist that lifetime registries make the public safer by preventing offender recidivism and giving citizens and police access to crucial information on the whereabouts of sex offenders and where they are prohibited from going — like schools and other areas frequented by children. Access to that information in 50 state registries plus a federal government registry, they say, far outweighs complaints about the registry burdens for criminals who have served their prison sentences.

"Sex offender registries are an important part of the criminal justice system," said Staca Shehan of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Registries assist law enforcement —and the public — to keep track of the locations of convicted sex offenders."

But some defense attorneys say registration has turned into such a harsh punishment that they now negotiate longer jail terms for their clients in return for prosecutors dropping sex offender registry requirements, trading incarceration for pleading guilty to charges that don't require registration.

"At least a prison sentence ends," said Gary Goodman, a public defense lawyer from Palo Alto, California. "Registration is forever."