Why the Steubenville Rapists Won’t Be ‘Labeled’ for Life

Photo: Corbis

As has now been much discussed, CNN’s breaking news team shed some tears over the weekend for those “two young men that had such promising futures” in Steubenville. Here is what their legal expert, Paul Callan, actually said:

But in terms of what happens now, yes, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders. That label is now placed on them by Ohio law and, by the way, the laws in most other states now require such a designation in the face of such a serious crime.

That will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Employers, when looking up their background, will see they’re registered sex offender. When they move into a new neighborhood and somebody goes on the Internet where these things are posted. Neighbors will know they’re a registered sex offender.

This is heartrending to CNN, but it’s also flat wrong. Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays have not been put on the sex offender registry “by Ohio law,” “for the rest of their lives” or otherwise. It’s not clear they ever will be. Had Mays and Richmond been tried a year ago, then yes, they might have triggered an Ohio statute automatically putting them on the registry. But in April 2012, the Ohio Supreme Court declared mandatory lifetime registration of juvenile sex offenders to be “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment.

It was actually the “lifetime” part of the registration requirement that irked the Ohio Supreme Court. We have separate courts for teenagers, they noted, because teenagers are “less culpable than adults,” and more likely to respond to rehabilitation. In a faint echo of CNN’s anchors, the Court argued that the stigma of being known as a sex offender would “define his adult life before it has a chance to truly begin.” They stopped just short of knocking out registration requirements altogether, though. Instead, they left it to the judge in a particular case to decide.

The hope of rehabilitation is exactly why the judge in Steubenville told Richmond and Mays that he wouldn’t decide on registration just yet. They’ll have to do their one-year (Richmond) and two-year (Mays) minimum sentences, get the counseling that the system offers, and then they will be judged on whether they are dangerous enough to be included on the sex offender registry.

Given his undue emphasis on the presence of “alcohol” and “social media” as motivating factors in the crime, the chances of Judge Lipps bringing down the registry hammer seem slim. But even if he does impose registration requirements on Mays and Richmond, the information they will have to provide — addresses, employers, pictures — will not be made publicly available. The Ohio State’s Attorney does not generally include juvenile offenders in the database that you too can search on the Internet; the information will only be available to the police. Any stigma is more likely to come by way of the blanket, wall-to-wall coverage of Steubenville on networks like CNN, not to mention the tweets and Instagrams which brought it to public attention in the first place. Those will, yes, be hard to escape.

In general, sex offender registries are better at exposing hypocrisies in the way we deal with rape in America than at helping to prevent it. The registries are the result of a lot of earnest posing by public officials about how serious sex crimes are. Yet they have always been quick-on-the-draw solutions, hastily enacted by people who did not pause to ask whether the proposed bandage would minimally cover the wound.

Experts in the area point out  that there is precious little evidence that registries actually prevent sexual assault. For one thing, registration is expensive. Its costs undoubtedly eat into already small budgets for the social workers who would otherwise work to supervise juveniles post-release, favoring community “self-policing” over spending real money on prevention efforts. For another, it only kicks in after a first conviction, and convictions are notoriously difficult to get. And recidivism is tricky to measure, but it’s worth noting that it isn’t high among adult sex offenders to begin with; among youth it’s been estimated at as low as 8 percent.

The problem of sexual assault is not, in other words, a problem of a few bad apples souring the pie. And that’s exactly what made Steubenville such a rage festival from the time the story broke. There was a very real chance that these young men would get away with it: because they were football players, because she was branded a “slut,” because sex crime prosecution is generally a hopeless business in this country. Because, in short, Mays and Richmond didn’t look like bad apples to a system that has never had an amazing record of finding them. No database on earth would have prevented what happened at that night in August, even if it had been programmed into every teenager’s phone at those parties. Not even if it had included juvenile offenders. What might have helped is if the Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmonds of this world knew that whatever the consequences, they’d be caught. One of the most common refrains in arguments about sentencing, after all, is that certainty of punishment is far more important than severity.

Steubenville Rapists Won’t Be ‘Labeled’ for Life