Sex offender registries are a big deal these days. Many people regularly check the lists when assessing potential new neighborhoods, acquaintances and co-workers. The lists are mandated by the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, which required that all states, territories and tribes have them in place by this past July 27.
The registries have been dogged by controversy, especially as the number of offenses that can land offenders on them has grown to include consensual offenses like intercourse between teenage couples whose ages happen to straddle the legal line for consent, and "sexting" -- the sharing of provocative self-portraits that has become popular in certain hormonally charged, underage circles.
But Scott Ibarra's case highlights another risk: that the sex offender lists are as flawed and inaccurate as everything else maintained by government agencies, to the point that they include the names of innocent people.
According to the Joliet Herald News:
Ibarra's name, the address of his Joliet home and his physical description were placed in the state's sex offender registry under a charge of aggravated criminal sexual assault for a month and 10 days in 2008.Ibarra was clued in only because a police officer friend clued him in. He was also able to get a state legislator to intervene on his behalf when seeking an explanation for the listing -- an explanation that still remains vague at best, but seems to involve a former police lieutenant who may have been performing a service for Ibarra's ex-wife. But that retired officer insists he only made an inquiry -- he never actually submitted Ibarra's name for inclusion in the registry.
The issue is somewhat clouded by the fact that Ibarra had been convicted of rape by the Navy in 1997, but his conviction was overturned on appeal. Legally, he was and is an innocent man, and ineligible for listing as a sex offender.
Maybe that's just a screw-up -- catching the initial conviction, but not the final clearing of Ibarra's record. But it's a dangerous mistake considering the limitations inclusion on the list places on people's employment, where they are allowed to live, and the necessity of reporting to local authorities. Being improperly listed as a sex offender can very easily result in losing jobs, losing homes and being arrested -- and places a person under a permanent cloud of suspicion.
Earlier this year, that Inspector General's report cautioned, "neither law enforcement officials nor the public can rely on the registries for identifying registered sex offenders, particularly those who are fugitives." It turns out that we may not be able to even assume that everybody on the registries actually committed the crimes for which they've been included.