Sex Offender Management Bill Passes Senate: Hearing April 3 in House Criminal Justice Committee

By Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR, 603-620-7946

The Senate this month approved SB 277 by overwhelming voice vote to create a blue ribbon commission of all the key stakeholders to study sex offender policies in depth, arguably for the first time. The bill received strong support in Senate Judiciary Committee, reaching the Senate floor with a 5-0 vote of endorsement.  

A school superintendent once told me that sex offenders are the third rail of school politics, as in don’t touch it or you get flash cooked from the inside out. He meant people stop thinking when the topic comes up. Folks who want rational crime laws have a chance next week to make a vital difference on this fear-driven issue. 

Come to the State House Tuesday morning, April 3, a little before 10 a.m. to speak on SB 277, which would inject some calm, deliberation, appropriate skepticism and reason into the debate over this unpopular group of former offenders. The public hearing is in Room 204 of the Legislative Office Building.

All around the country sex offender statutes are named for child murder victims, as in Jessica’s Law, Megan’s Law, the Jacob Wetterling Act and the Adam Walsh Act. We are beginning to understand that these reactionary laws to honor the memories of lost children do not make children any safer and may paradoxically endanger the public. They may also be unconstitutional. Two years ago the Maine Supreme Court ruled that the state’s public sex offender registry was an illegal retroactive punishment for many of its registrants.

The Ohio Supreme Court issued a similar decision in the summer of 2011 in the landmark Williams versus Ohio case.  The rape crisis centers in Cleveland and Texas intervened in support of the Ohio sex offenders. The lawyer for these victim advocates, Margie Slagle, argued that Ohio’s version of the Adam Walsh Act, passed in June 2007, is dangerous to the public because it “...fundamentally transformed classification, registration, and community notification requirements under Ohio's sex offender laws. In particular, the pre-AWA law classified adult sex offenders based on the individual's likelihood of committing future offenses and the offender's risk to the community. The AWA abandons risk based classifications for offense based classifications. While protecting Ohioans from sex offenders is a compelling interest- and indeed, is the core mission of each of the amici- none of the changes implemented as part of Ohio's AWA has been proven to achieve that goal. Research shows that the law's more burdensome requirements on law enforcement, the public, and sex offenders can cause higher levels of recidivism and thus pose increased danger to the community. More onerous sex offender registration and community notification laws threaten to harm the very people they are intended to protect and to undermine the goals of community safety and treatment of offenders. These laws perpetuate myths and create a false sense of security. Research demonstrates that victimization can be reduced when sex offenders successfully reenter the community. These changes also put law enforcement agencies, already in budgetary crises, in the position of spending precious dollars on monitoring low risk individuals with a limited impact on public safety. Thus, any argument that Ohio's AWA is simply a remedial law designed to protect children and the public from sexual abuse and sex crimes is seriously flawed. Ohio's AWA is not based on empirical evidence or proven research, but on fear and misinformation.”

Aware of these and similar problems, a number of states have set up permanent advisory commissions of experts on sex offender issues to propose science-based, reasonable policies on one of the most emotional issues facing lawmakers. Typically, such groups are called sex offender management boards, although their titles and duties vary from state to state. Most of them monitor and study the sentencing, incarceration, treatment, registration and community restriction policies and practices for sex offenders. At their best, these boards function at times like the New Hampshire Office of Legislative Budget Assistant in providing objective, data-rich recommendations. 

The well-funded Pennsylvania board evaluates the risk posed by each sex offender and reserves active community notification for those deemed to be the highest threat. It’s a very small population, comparable to the offenders New Hampshire might civilly commit for an extra five years under our Child Predator Act passed in 2007. 

The California management board studied the merits of imposing residency restrictions on sex offenders and talked the legislature out of using them. California voters went on to pass Proposition 83 by referendum over the objections of most lawmakers. It effectively banned and evicted sex offenders from all the cities and drove up the rate of homelessness among sex offenders by 800 percent in the first year.

The California group learned from a study by the Minnesota sex offender management board, which reviewed the records in 224 sex offenses to see if residency restrictions might have prevented those crimes.  The perpetrators never approached their victims near a park, pool, library, school or daycare center. Hearing this unexpected news, the Minnesota legislature rejected residency restrictions as a cure without a problem. 

The proposed New Hampshire management board might choose to study the comparable sex offender policies here. In the Jennings versus Dover case three years ago, the Dover District Court found that city’s residency restriction unconstitutional. It drove half the sex offenders out of town in the first year. Several communities elsewhere have similar ordinances, including Franklin. Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield has told me half the sex offenders stopped registering in his city in the first year of their residency ordinance. This winter Merrimack County Superior Court shot down the Franklin residency restriction. Three years ago the Manchester Police persuaded their aldermen to kill a proposed sex offender residency ordinance, fearing it would drive many registrants underground. 

The sex offender management board contemplated in SB 277 would rely on members from government agencies serving as part of their job and on volunteers from community programs that know and care about the issue.  This volunteer model can work. The Interagency Commission on Women Offenders has been active for years and always has a good turnout from members. It does good work too. It has identified high recidivism among women offenders as a huge and solvable problem.