Jason wasn’t sure what to do. After an alleged sexting incident in 2012 snowballed into a felony conviction in his southern state, he was forced to register as a sex offender and barred from using a computer or smartphone. Over time, the conditions of his probation were reduced to a patchwork of technology-related restrictions: He was allowed to use email, but he was initially not allowed to send text messages. He could use the internet, but he was not allowed to have a social media account, and all of his time online was monitored by a probation officer.
Since his conviction, Jason has become a leader in nonprofit advocacy around criminal legal system reform, regularly testifying at the state legislature, organizing state lobbying efforts, and winning community engagement awards. Last summer he petitioned the court to have his probation end early, given the growing list of public officials and local leaders who offered their support of his case.
But right now Jason is sitting in prison and will be there until July 2023. And it started with watching a community prayer livestream.
The relationship between sex-offense registries and technology is complicated. While the internet has certainly created new opportunities for sexual harms, the legislative response has often centered on efforts to ban people convicted of any type of sex crime from using technology at all. As the internet is now the de facto venue for public life, it’s been difficult to justify these laws without violating the Constitution and creating a massive class of people unable to survive in modern society.
More broadly speaking, one of the frustrating things about sex-offender registries is that they are ineffective in preventing sexual violence or rape. It is widely accepted among experts that registry laws don’t prevent sex crimes, that people on sex-offender registries are very unlikely to reoffend (something the US Supreme Court got terribly wrong in a consequential case), that around 90 percent of people who commit new sexual assaults aren’t on a registry, and that most sex crimes occur between people who already know each other. Registries are rife with data errors and a surprising number of juveniles.
But, even against this mountain of evidence, registry laws just seem to get more technical and more complex, especially when it comes to what is and is not allowed on the internet.
For instance, many states require people on the registry to report their “internet identifiers” to state authorities. Legislatures reason that “since those on the registry already have to report their physical addresses, why not require them to report their digital ones as well?”