By Maurice Chammah
In Kansas, even many minor drug offenders must appear on the state’s public registry. A new bill would change that.
Amid the farm animals and food stalls at the Kansas State Fair last September, Amy Byers came upon a booth run by the state’s Bureau of Investigation. There was a computer you could use to search your address and find out if you live near a sex offender. You could also search by name.
When her friends began joking that she should type in her own name, Byers panicked. She knew that she was on the list, although not for a sex crime. A decade ago, she was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine. She pled guilty and avoided prison time. Now 29, she says she lives a clean life in Hutchinson, a small town in the center of the state.
But under Kansas law, having a drug conviction means that her photograph and other identifying details are displayed in the same public registry that includes more than 10,000 convicted sex offenders. Many registrants also appear on third-party websites like “Offender Radar” and “Sex Offender Spy,” and it’s easy for a visitor to miss the single word — “drug” — that differentiates Byers’ crime from those the public judges much more harshly. “People who don’t know me are going to look at me like I’m a horrible person for being on that list,” she said.
Lawmakers have long justified sex offender registries as a way to notify people about potentially dangerous neighbors or acquaintances, while critics say they fail to prevent crime and create a class of social outcasts. Over the years, several states have expanded their registries to add perpetrators of other crimes, including kidnapping, assault, and murder. Tennessee added animal abuse. Utah added white collar crimes. A few states considered but abandoned plans for hate crime and domestic abuse registries. At least five states publicly display methamphetamine producers.
But Kansas went furthest, adding an array of lesser drug crimes; roughly 4,600 people in the state are now registered as drug offenders. As deaths from opioids rise, some public officials have focused on addiction as a public health issue. Kansas offers a different approach, as law enforcement officials argue that the registry helps keep track of people who may commit new offenses and cautions the public to avoid potentially dangerous areas and individuals. At the same time, many registrants say it can be hard to move on when their pasts are just a click away for anyone to see.