Bill to ease sex offender registry gets ambushed in committee

Our legislation to bring the state into better compliance with the federal sex offender public registry act met with strong opposition last week. The criticism came from the Department of Safety, a lobbyist for the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, and from an irate Derry state rep and one of his constituents.  HB 262 would repeal one draconian line of our public registry law that is far more harsh than the feds require, replacing it with the federal language. 

Jill Rockey, executive director of the Central New Hampshire Women’s Crisis Center, spoke on behalf of all 14 similar government funded agencies. She also headed the State Police sex offender registry office in 2008 when New Hampshire passed the disputed line of statute.  She said lawmakers knew the line was tougher than absolutely necessary because they wanted a tough law to protect kids. The clause makes a lifetime registrant of anyone who has committed three separate sex offenses.

Two Keene lawmakers cosponsoring the bill spoke for it, citing major vigilantism there against people on the registry. Rep. Susan Emerson, another sponsor, said the shaming roster keeps a person from going to school, getting a job, finding a girlfriend, or having a family.

"Fifteen years is a hard trial by ordeal," Emerson said. "If an ex prisoner has remained offense free that long and convinces a judge he is no threat to the community now, chances are he really is no threat to the community. So why not let him try to rebuild what little life he has left? It's a matter of public safety to let him reenter society and succeed."

Two board members of CCJR spoke for the bill, saying the public shaming roster is fanning attacks on registrants all across New Hampshire, and that the Adam Walsh tiers bear no correlation with the risk posed by offenders.  Someone guilty of three counts of statutory rape may present little threat, but that person has to register for life. 

We gave lawmakers a seven-page summary of the research on sex offenders. It shows that the mug shot website causes enormous harm to ex-offenders and their families, it does nothing to reduce recidivism or first-time sex offenses, it destabilizes registrants, and it  is based on hysteria and misinformation about the low rate of recidivism for this unpopular group when they get out of prison.

Rockey, by the way, digressed in her testimony in an effort to discredit Laurie Peterson, a woman who lobbied against the New Hampshire current registry law when it was enacted in 2008. Rockey told lawmakers that Peterson downplayed the severity of her husband’s sex offense at bill hearings. 

The House Criminal Justice chairman has denied CCJR a chance to reply in front of his committee, but let’s set the record straight. I was a State House reporter when a lobbyist for the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence made sure all of us in the news room got a copy of the police report for the offender in question. His crime was serious, unquestionably, and he went to prison for it. At a wild party when he was very drunk, he had sex with an underage woman who was just as drunk, and he never asked for her ID. The report, which was not a ruling of fact by a judge and jury after cross examination, said another male had sex with the girl at the same time.  

The defendant did his time in a place that is unkind to convicted sex offenders  and got married when he left. His wife knew all about his past, and they now have three children together. To my knowledge, Laurie Peterson has never testified at a bill hearing in the last four or five years. Her future husband’s crime was not aggravated felonious sexual assault, as Rockey implied, because the man was placed on tier one of the registry. Rockey failed to mention that he petitioned his sentencing court after 10 years of wearing an electronic Star of David, and won the right to get off the targeting list because he posed little or no threat to the public. For more on the issue, see my written testimony below.