The New York Police Department allowed wealthy financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein to skip dozens of court-mandated check-ins with law enforcement for more than eight years before he was arrested and charged with the sex trafficking of minors, the Washington Post reported earlier this year. During roughly that same period, cops in New York state made at least 7,061 arrests for similar violations of the state’s complicated sex offender registration law, according to data obtained by HuffPost.
Several of those arrests include people who committed minor violations, like submitting paperwork days late, or who struggled to keep up with reporting requirements because they were living in homeless shelters or on the street, defense lawyers said.
Epstein’s ability to evade punishment for the same behavior that has resulted in felony convictions and imprisonment for less wealthy New Yorkers is a stark example of selective enforcement within the criminal justice system. The registration laws can make it difficult for convicted sex offenders who are not wealthy like Epstein to keep a job and find a place to live. Being unemployed and homeless makes it much harder to comply with paperwork and reporting requirements. Yet it was Epstein, not those less-wealthy offenders, who was granted an exception to the rules.
New York’s Sex Offender Registration Act, which took effect in 1996, places layers of burdensome reporting requirements on people who have been convicted of sex crimes. The law divides people into three “risk” categories: those in the level one category typically have to register as sex offenders for 20 years; level two and three offenders have to register for life.
Registered sex offenders have to report where they live every year. When they move, they have to provide their new address in writing within 10 days of the move. They have to get their picture taken by law enforcement every 1-3 years, depending on their risk categorization. They have to provide written information about their internet service providers, online screen names and email accounts. If they enroll or work at a higher education institution, they have to report that too. Level three offenders, like Epstein, are required to verify their addresses to local law enforcement every 90 days.
Oftentimes, they are charged on the slightest breach of a technicality — they changed shelters, reported on the 91st day, or were experiencing homelessness. Eliza Orlins, public defender
In 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty to Florida state charges of soliciting prostitution from a minor. He registered in 2010 as a sex offfender in New York, where he owns a $77 million mansion on the Upper East Side. He went to court in 2011 to challenge the state’s decision to classify him as level three offender. His lawyer argued that because his New York property was a vacation home rather than his primary residence, he shouldn’t be required to do quarterly check-ins with the cops. State Supreme Court Judge Ruth Pickholz disagreed. “He can give up his New York home if he does not want to come every 90 days,” she said.
But Epstein never showed up for subsequent check-ins with the New York Police Department. Earlier this month, the New York Post reported that several current and former NYPD officials said they were shocked that Epstein wasn’t punished for skipping his mandatory meetings. The next day, NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot F. Shea said in a tweet that Epstein didn’t have to check in with New York cops because he had changed his residence to the Virgin Islands — a claim that runs counter to Pickholz’s orders.
Violating the Sex Offender Registration Act is a felony, punishable by up to four years in prison for the first offense. When people run afoul of the reporting requirements — even those who have compelling reasons for doing so — they don’t usually get a pass, defense lawyers say.
“Oftentimes, they are charged on the slightest breach of a technicality — they changed shelters, reported on the 91st day, or were experiencing homelessness,” Eliza Orlins, a public defender in Manhattan who has represented dozens of people accused of sex offender registration violations, wrote in an email.
Last year, there were at least 921 arrests in New York state stemming from reporting requirements under the Sex Offender Registration Act, according to data provided to HuffPost by the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services. Since 2010, the year Epstein registered as a sex offender in New York, there have been 7,061 arrests, according to the division. These numbers do not include people who were also arrested for a more serious crime, so the actual number of arrests is likely higher.
Orlins represented a man earlier this year who was experiencing homelessness and failed to report his change of address. Rather than risk a felony conviction and a yearslong sentence, he took a plea deal: a misdemeanor and a one year in jail. He is now at Rikers Island, Orlins said on Twitter.
Scott Hechinger, a public defender in Brooklyn, represented a man who checked in with law enforcement consistently for nine years. Recently, Hechinger said on Twitter, the man became homeless and failed to update his address. Because he couldn’t afford bail, he waited for his case to be resolved from Rikers. He eventually pleaded guilty to a felony. Prosecutors acknowledged his record of complying with check-in requirements and sentenced him to time served. He was released earlier this month but with a felony on his criminal record and fees he cannot afford, Hechinger said.
It is not unusual for registered sex offenders to struggle with homelessness. The stigma can make it difficult to find a job and a place to live. And more than 30 states require registrants to live at least 1,000 feet away from schools, churches and places where children gather, HuffPost has previously reported. This makes finding a legal place to live in some areas almost impossible.
People who don’t have a stable place to live are often forced to bounce between shelters, depending on where they can find an available bed. For registered sex offenders, this means having to constantly update their address — and often during times where they don’t have access to a phone, email or transportation.
There is no evidence that sex offender laws like the ones in New York keep Americans safer. The laws are predicated on the false notion that sex offenders are exceptionally likely to re-engage in sex crimes. A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study showed that rape and sexual assault offenders were less likely than other prisoners to be arrested after being released from prison. The laws also assume that sex crimes typically take place between a victim and a stranger — hence the idea that the identity and location of past sex offenders needs to be constantly policed and publicized. This also is not true. Perpetrators of sexual violence are usually people known to the victim.
Sex offender registration laws “aren’t based in any data,” said Erin Harrist, a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “They’re just knee-jerk reactions to certain horrible instances.”