This Proposed Michigan Law Would Treat Parents Who Use Drugs Like Sex Offenders

    Sex offender registries and notification laws have proliferated in the name of protecting women and children, despite the fact that the evidence does not show that they prevent sex crimes. In fact, some evidence suggests that notification laws—which require that registry information be made available to the broader public—may increase recidivism and overall rates of sex crime. Even so, the State of Michigan seems poised to add a public, online, and searchable child abuse registry modeled on the sex offender registry.

    “Wyatt’s Law,” which passed the Michigan Senate on December 7, is the result of an advocacy project by Erica Hammel, a woman whose toddler was violently shaken by her ex-husband’s girlfriend. Hammel believes that, if she had known about the girlfriend’s past child abuse convictions, her son Wyatt would not have suffered from the long-term impairments caused by being shaken. The bill now heads to the Michigan House.

    While Wyatt’s Law may sound good in theory, the bill would have dire impacts on people who are dependent on drugs, and their families, if passed.

    For one, people like Harold and Kimberly Murphy will have their names, photographs, and other identifying information plastered on the internet, alongside the label “Child Abusers,” for five or 10 years, which will likely drive social support away from them just when they need it most. The Murphys’ child found a prescription morphine pill that belonged to Kimberly’s deceased mother, consumed it, and tragically died. Assistant Macomb County Prosecutor Yasmin Poles said the “reckless act” that made the child’s death a child abuse crime was “that their house is a pigsty.” While Kimberly Murphy successfully challenged the conviction, Harold Murphy did not.

    Elected Charlevoix County Prosecuting Attorney Allen Telgenhof has also opined that parents who use drugs are immediately suspect as “child abusers,” as “[t]here are direct dangers, such as needles lying around the house, and indirect dangers such as how are they able to care for their child when they are high on drugs.” Under the bill as drafted, all child abuse convictions would trigger public registration, including the misdemeanor provision only requiring an “omission” or “reckless act” for a conviction.

    As if that were not enough to give pause, Michigan’s elected prosecutors have a reputation for abusing their power. Kym Worthy, the elected Prosecuting Attorney of Wayne County (Detroit), has been described as “power hungry,” “vindictive,” and “childish.” In 2016, a Wayne County judge refused to mete out an unconstitutional punishment that Worthy requested. For months thereafter, Worthy forbade her prosecutors from agreeing to any plea bargain in front of that same judge, which strained resources by forcing every case to trial while arbitrarily increasing punishments. That same year, the New York Times editorial board slammed Kym Worthy—as well as Oakland County, Michigan, Prosecuting Attorney Jessica R. Cooper, who once dismantled her county’s drug court—for “defying” the Supreme Court of the United States. Both Worthy and Cooper flouted the Supreme Court’s rulings on resentencing hearings for people serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as children.

    Back in 2016, Shelli Weisburg from the ACLU of Michigan warned that Wyatt’s Law “completely copies the sex-offender registry.” The sex offender registry itself was born from “Megan’s Law,” which was inspired by a single homicide case of a heinous but extremely rare nature. Despite the fact that the vast majority of sex offenses are perpetrated by people without a prior sex-crime conviction, over 900,000 Americans are now barred from jobs and zoned out of entire cities through housing restrictions. 

    It seems clear that Michigan’s lawmakers want to widen that net even farther.


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    Photo via HuffPost/Getty Images.

    • Rory Fleming

      Rory is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors nationwide. He previously worked for the Fair Punishment Project, which was founded as a joint project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute. Rory is a licensed Minnesota attorney.

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