“In our Internet age, the ‘shaming and branding’ of sex offenders inevitably leads to community stigmatization and ostracism. Being branded a sex offender in a community indisputably has ostracizing effects, including social isolation, difficulty finding employment and being targeted for harassment, violence even murder.

“The drafters of the United States and Maine Constitutions deemed such actions criminal penalties and proscribed them, directly addressing such punishment in the Constitutions.”

– Justices Warren Silver and Donald Alexander, Maine Supreme Judicial Court, Sept 25.

We have no issue with an “activist” court, if it errs on the side of civil liberties and upholds the Maine and United States constitutions. On Tuesday, The Maine Supreme Judicial Court did both.

The state’s highest court reinstated a lawsuit brought by a convicted sex offender, who sued to prevent his name from being added to the state’s sex offender registry. John Doe’s conviction came more than 20 years ago, when he was 19, a decade before the sex offender registry existed.

Maine law was amended in 2005 to compel retroactive registration for all offenders convicted since 1982, the point Doe is contesting. It’s the latest in a series of amendments to the original sex offender law – first passed in 1992 – that has gradually increased the registry’s scope and power.

But with each amendment, concerns grew about infringement on the civil rights of sex offenders, who are treated differently than other criminals. They are the only offenders publicly registered, while attempts to classify others, such as arsonists, have failed before the Legislature.

In its decision, the court recognized many concerns about the sex offender registry, and gave lawmakers clear, legal guidelines on reforming the system. The Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee was already scheduled to meet Oct. 23 to, in part, address issues raised by the court. Perfect timing.

Though derided by one defendant as an “activist” court, the Supreme Judicial Court merely echoed sentiments from across the nation: The legal standards to which sex offenders are held border on unconstitutionality, especially given rapid amendments that have prevented constitutional analysis.

This has happened in Maine, where sex offender laws have been changed in 1995, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005 and this year (actually last Thursday, Sept. 20). A Canadian teenager also executed two Mainers in 2006 for being listed on the sex offender registry, which has opened eyes about the frightening harm the list can inspire.

Compounding the problem are hodgepodge approaches by communities toward sex offenders, such as residency restrictions, a policy approach recently criticized by Human Rights Watch as failing to keeping children safe, but succeeding in impeding offenders’ re-entry into society.

Heaping more amendments and ordinances onto sex offenders won’t alleviate concerns about the constitutional compliance or effectiveness of the laws.

The court’s wise decision indicates another approach is needed.


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