When a Drug Conviction Lands You on the Sex-Offender Registry
A strange law in Kansas means a history of drug offenses gets people lumped in with a very different kind of criminal.
Illustration by Celina Fang. Map By Alamy, figures In Propublica's Weepeople font by Alberto Cairo
Amid the farm animals and food stalls at the Kansas State Fair last September, Amy Byers came upon a booth run by the state’s Bureau of Investigation. There was a computer you could use to search your address and find out if you live near a sex offender. You could also search by name.
When her friends began joking that she should type in her own name, Byers panicked. She knew that she was on the list, although not for a sex crime. A decade ago, she was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine. She pleaded guilty and avoided prison time. Now 29, she says she lives a clean life in Hutchinson, a small town in the center of the state.
But under Kansas law, having a drug conviction means that her photograph and other identifying details are displayed in the same public registry that includes more than 10,000 convicted sex offenders. Many registrants also appear on third-party websites like “Offender Radar” and “Sex Offender Spy,” and it’s easy for a visitor to miss the single word—“drug”—that differentiates Byers's crime from those the public judges much more harshly. “People who don’t know me are going to look at me like I’m a horrible person for being on that list,” she said.
Lawmakers have long justified sex offender registries as a way to notify people about potentially dangerous neighbors or acquaintances, while critics say they fail to prevent crime and create a class of social outcasts. Over the years, several states have expanded their registries to add perpetrators of other crimes, including kidnapping, assault, and murder. Tennessee added animal abuse. Utah added white-collar crimes. A few states considered but abandoned plans for hate crime and domestic abuse registries. At least five states publicly display methamphetamine producers.
But Kansas went furthest, adding an array of lesser drug crimes; roughly 4,600 people in the state are now registered as drug offenders. As deaths from opioids rise, some public officials have focused on addiction as a public health issue. Kansas offers a different approach, as law enforcement officials argue that the registry helps keep track of people who may commit new offenses and cautions the public to avoid potentially dangerous areas and individuals. At the same time, many registrants say it can be hard to move on when their pasts are just a click away for anyone to see.
The Kansas legislature is currently considering a bill proposed by the state’s sentencing commission that would remove drug offenders from the registry. “It is a drain on resources with no science, studies, or data to justify it,” defense lawyer Jennifer Roth told lawmakers at an early February hearing.
The Kansas law, first passed in 2007, now requires anyone convicted of manufacturing, distributing, or possessing “with intent to distribute” drugs other than marijuana to remain on the registry for a minimum of 15 years (and a maximum of life, for multiple convictions). During that time, they must appear at their county sheriff’s office four times a year, as well as any time they move, get a new job, email address, vehicle, or tattoo. Most of this information is online, searchable by name or neighborhood, and members of the public can sign up to be emailed when an offender moves in or starts work near them. (In 2013, when businesses expressed fear of vigilantes targeting registrants at work, lawmakers removed employment addresses from the website.)
During the quarterly sheriff visits, they must pay $20 and have their picture retaken; if they work or go to school in another county, they must register there as well. “Any time I get a new job, I have to say, ‘Sorry, I need time off,’ in the first 72 hours,” said Juston Kerns, 35, arrested for involvement in the sale of methamphetamine in 2014.
A few years ago, Wesley Harden—convicted in 2008 of selling methamphetamine after he led police on a high-speed chase—was arrested and charged with “failure to register.” Harden, 35, showed up as required, but he’d recently failed to report a jet ski as a new vehicle. He doesn’t know for sure how the authorities discovered the jet ski, but thinks it has to do with pictures he posted on Facebook.
Harden received three years of probation, but the punishment for failing to register can include prison time, even if the original conviction was handled without incarceration. Last year, 38 people were sent to prison over their failure to register for drug crimes, and the Kansas Sentencing Commission estimates that removing drug crimes would save the state roughly a million dollars each year.
Captain Michael Kolbek of the Shawnee County Sheriff’s Department, which handles registrants in the Topeka area, said the county’s compliance rate is usually above 90 percent. The department often cuts registrants slack if they can’t afford a payment. “A lot of them suffer from mental illness; maybe they went off their medication,” he said. “Those are the folks we don’t prosecute.”
The personal ramifications of being on the registry can be difficult to pinpoint, since having a felony on one’s record can also bring negative consequences. But some registrants say it creates an additional barrier when they look for employment. “If you want a job, you don’t have to tell them you’re a felon anymore, but now they can search for you, and it lowers your chances even more of getting a job,” said Ashleigh Swarts, who was convicted of various methamphetamine crimes, most recently in 2015. “I can’t get a job, period.”
Although drugs do not carry the same social stigma as sexual and violent crimes, some people say that being on the registry takes a toll on their relationships. Holly Bratcher, who was convicted of involvement in meth production after being caught in a raid at a friend’s house, said she had abandoned her drug use, but her new boyfriend’s ex-partner found her on the registry. “She told his mom, told others kids’ moms, and put my business out there for everybody,” Bratcher said. “Anybody who looks at my record, they don’t know me, they are quick to judge me.”
At the same time, Bratcher said the stringent registry requirements have a silver lining. When she was convicted, she lost her nursing license, and she is working to get it back from a state board. “Proving you’re making good choices—that’s next to impossible to prove to people on paper,” she said. Now, she can point to her diligence at keeping up with her registration as proof she has turned her life around.
Many law enforcement officials support the registry on public safety grounds. “People who sell drugs, there tends to be dangerous activity that takes place around their residence,” said Ed Klumpp, a retired Topeka police chief who lobbies for law enforcement at the legislature and opposes the current bill. “If you’re raising children in the neighborhood, it’s good to know there is someone down the street convicted of selling or manufacturing, so maybe they won’t send the kids to get candy there on Halloween.”
In recent years, lawyers around the country have argued to increasing success that registration requirements are unconstitutional. One county in Colorado recently took its registry offline after a judge found it to be cruel and unusual punishment. California recently passed a law allowing sex offenders to be removed from the registry after 10 to 20 years if they have not committed another serious or violent felony or sex crime.
But beyond the legal questions are practical ones. Little is known about whether registries prevent crime, and University of Michigan law professor J.J. Prescott has speculated that they may even facilitate crimes that involve buyers and sellers. “Imagine I move to a new city and I don't know where to find drugs,” he said. “Oh, I can just look up people on the registry!”
Evidence to support this theory is scant—and law enforcement leaders in Kansas say they have not encountered the problem—but at the February legislative hearing, Scott Schultz, the executive director of the Kansas Sentencing Commission, said he had learned of one registrant who found people at her door, looking to buy drugs. They’d seen her address online. “I’ve called it, tongue in cheek, state-sponsored drug-dealing,” Schultz said, describing the registry as an “online shopping portal for meth and other drugs.”
A version of this article was originally published by the Wichita Eagle in collaboration with the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the US criminal justice system. Sign up for the newsletter, or follow the Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.