COLUMBIA — The S.C. Supreme Court has unanimously ruled the state’s lifetime sex offender registration requirement is unconstitutional and people who demonstrate a low risk of reoffending should be able to petition a judge to have their names purged.
The June 9 order demands the General Assembly change the law to bring South Carolina in line with other states that provide offenders a path off of similar Megan’s Law-type registries.
The law is named for a 7-year-old in New Jersey who was sexually assaulted and murdered by a neighbor, prompting states around the country in the 1990s to tighten their laws around sex offenders.
Offenders may only be removed if their conviction was reversed, they are acquitted through a retrial or if granted a pardon based on a finding that the subject was not guilty of their crimes.
Otherwise, unlike other states, South Carolina provides prior offenders no recourse to seek relief from a judge.
That now is in line for change based on the high court decision.
The system is the “most stringent in the country,” and deprives offenders of their rights to due process, Chief Justice Donald Beatty wrote in the 13-page ruling.
Because the state does not track which individuals have a low risk of reoffending, the state’s registry “dilutes its utility by creating an ever-growing list of registrants that is less effective at protecting the public and meeting the needs of law enforcement,” Beatty wrote.
The justices did reject an argument that publishing the registry online violates state law, allowing the database to continue to be displayed on the Internet.
The ruling mandates that offenders be offered hearings in circuit court, where they may argue they no longer pose a risk to their communities. Because that change will require an act of the Legislature, the ruling does not take effect until June 2022.
The high court’s decision is already sparking reactions from the law enforcement community and nonprofit organizations that work to support sexual assault and human trafficking victims.
Brooke Burris, who founded and co-chairs the Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force, said she understands the need to reexamine the registry and provide some offenders a pathway off of it.
But she was concerned justices didn’t mention victims in their June 9 ruling.
“The effects on a victim are for their lifetime,” Burris said.
Rebecca Lorick, executive director of Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, echoed those concerns.
“It should be totally victim-centered,” Lorick said. “It’s so important to have their voices heard.”
Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, said the state’s sheriffs welcome the opportunity to work with lawmakers to improve the law.
But, he said, “We must implement a solution that upholds a careful balance between public safety and an individual’s right to due process.”
Jonathan Ozmint, director of the S.C. Department of Corrections from 2003 to 2011, said lawmakers should adopt the system crafted by federal officials and used by other states.
Under this more common process, the lowest-level offenders are automatically purged from registries after 10 years, and most or all nonviolent offenders have a path off the lists.
Read the decision here: https://www.sccourts.org/opinions/HTMLFiles/SC/28033.pdf