Crime registries and public notification

Mary Mallon emigrated from Ireland and found work as a cook, first in the New York suburb of Mamaroneck, then for several families in Manhattan. From there she found new employment in Oyster Bay, not far from my home, on Long Island and finally worked for three more households.

Trouble swirled around Mallon. While she was hardworking and helpful, wherever she went, people became sick. At least one died. Although healthy herself, Mallon was suspected of being a carrier of a deadly illness. She denied this and felt persecuted—anti-Irish sentiment was strong at the time—especially since one test came back negative. New York’s public health department saw it otherwise. The police forcibly removed Mallon (who became famous as Typhoid Mary) and put her in isolation on an island in the East River.

After holding her there at the assylum for three years, Mallon was released with the understanding that she would no longer work as a cook and that she would undertake hygienic measures so as not to sicken others. Mallon took on a pseudonym and found employment once again as a cook. She infected as many as 25 more and probably was responsible for another death. When she was re-arrested, Mallon was returned to quarantine on North Brother Island and died there more than twenty years later.

The problem with Mallon was that because she carried bacteria that she couldn’t get rid of she posed serious harm to others. Now many states want to treat categories of ex-convicts similar to the government’s response to Mallon. Upon release from prison, their names will be placed on registries that will be available for public scrutiny. Just as Mallon could never rid herself of the bacteria, some believe that ex-cons can never be anything other than criminals. They serve their sentence and are released, but they remain a public menace.

The idea that ex-convicts should continue to be monitored by the state and have their names publicly available, often on websites, began in the 1994, with the passage of Megan’s law in New Jersey, named after seven-year-old Megan Kanka who was murdered by a previously convicted sex offender who lived across the street from the Kanka family. The registries frequently post photos of the ex-offenders, along with their present address and the nature of their offense. Additional laws restrict how close the person can live to a school. The rationale for the continued monitoring, restrictions and publicity is that sexual offenders are habitual criminals. What brought them to commit their first offense will bring them to commit another. Like Mallon, they are carriers forever.

New York and Illinois now are on the verge of creating registries and community notification laws for all violent criminals. The main sponsor of the Illinois murder notification bill said, “There are people who are lying in wait. It’s cold. It’s calculated. It’s planned over time. And it’s one of the most evil things that somebody can do on this earth.” In Maine, there is a proposal for a registry for drunk drivers and there are discussions in that state to add registries for arsonists and animal abusers.

There was good reason to quarantine Mary Mallon, but is it right that offenders, after having served their time, continue to be stigmatized? Are they being punished beyond their original sentence? When challenged on these grounds, a Court of Appeals said no. “The state had imposed no restrictions on a [person’s] ability to live and work in a community, to move from place to place, to obtain a professional license or to secure governmental benefits.” The reasoning seems specious to me. If public notification and registries didn’t impose restrictions, then what is the point? Such laws are meant to protect the public from someone who is considered a potential menace. The proof that the person poses a threat is that they once had committed an offense.

If Mallon had been released from North Brothers Island, she would have continued to spread typhoid fever. But criminals aren’t like that. They aren’t carriers of pathogens. If we really believed that criminals are beyond remediation and redemption, then sentences handed down by judges need to be life-long in the first instance.

Registries and public notification are means to get around what the public would rightly reject as a too-harsh justice system, one that lacks all compassion, and one that no longer accepts the standard that the punishment should fit the crime.

The sad fact is that people are molested, murdered, beaten and robbed mostly by people who know them. Strangers are far less a danger than family members, lovers and boyfriends. In promoting the federal Sexual Offender Act of 1994, President Clinton said that is “a crucial tool to protect children from known sexual predators.” However, studies indicate that such laws have had little or no effect on reducing sex crimes.

There is no good or rational reason to extend registries to other crimes. There is little reason to continue the laws we presently have. I understand why people fear sexual predators and I understand the desire to live a life without the fear of violent crime. But registries are indulgences in expensive, wishful thinking, We don’t need more of them but fewer.


2 thoughts on “Crime registries and public notification

  1. Great post. I particularly thought the following paragraph was so useful to the discussion: “…criminals aren’t like that. They aren’t carriers of pathogens. If we really believed that criminals are beyond remediation and redemption, then sentences handed down by judges need to be life-long in the first instance”

    A sentence is precisely that: a period of time that has been judged appropriate as a sign of having paid one’s dues for having served a crime. There is a beginning and an end to the sentence. The idea of criminals as class of people who have a biological essence that is inherently “criminogenic” and irremediable is not only ridiculous but dangerous. It is furthermore costly to society because it does nothing to remedy structural conditions that can lead to crime.

  2. This has been an ethical conundrum for me, because I agree with you that once a person has served his sentence, the slate should be wiped clean. Unfortunately, with pedophiles, the recidivism rate is high. It seems like the public has to be protected as well; for example, not letting people with that record work with children. Certain rights will be lost when the crime is committed. It’s not a perfect system and I don’t think there is one.

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