Committee Votes to Axe Sex Offender Bill

by Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR

The House Criminal Justice Committee voted 15-0 on April 3 to defeat a piece of legislation designed to calm down the hysteria over sex offenders and help New Hampshire discover the best  practices in dealing with them. SB 277 will appear on the consent calendar for the House session next week, which means it has little chance of passage.

The proposal would have set up a permanent 18-member volunteer board to give all the key stakeholders a say on policy changes. Its charge was to learn what other states are doing, study the research on this sensitive issue and write an annual report with suggestions for new laws. All the witnesses at the public hearing supported the bill, and so did half a dozen people signing in but not testifying.

The prime sponsor, Sen. Sharon Carson (R-Londonderry), said the new board would have some needed expertise in the management of sex offenders.

“I hope we can pull the emotions out of the debate and create legislation in the best interest of everyone,” she testified before the committee vote. “We’ve got to ensure public safety.”

Rep. Mark Warden (R-Manchester), a leader in the House natural rights caucus, made the motion of inexpedient to legislate. Rep. David Welch (R-Kingston), a co-sponsor of SB 277, seconded the motion. 

Rep. Phil Ginsburg (D-Durham) told me committee members agreed with the goals of the bill-  to increase discussion of the issue and gather information from all parties. 

“If there are widespread breakdowns in the system and in the legal treatment (of sex offenders), we should develop legislation to deal with it,” Ginsburg explained. “Nobody minimizes the seriousness of the problems. But we believed the proposed board would be unwieldy because of its size.”

He added that the group would have trouble fulfilling its significant mandate without a staff to help. And giving it the resources to do its job would be expensive.

“This is the most important part,” Ginsburg continued. “Committee members suggested that existing organizations could serve much of the function proposed for the board by broadening their own examination of the issues and bringing organizations and individuals with perspectives different from their own into their internal discussions.  These could include representatives of other organizations working on the issues, experts from state agencies, and legislators.”

Atty. Michael Iacopino, past president of the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, supported the bill and said the proposed standing committee would include a fair balance of conflicting interests to advise government at all levels. 

“There are a lot of questions to look at,” Iacopino said. “Can sex offenders watch their children’s games? The label affects everything they do. In some cases they deserve it. But it is incumbent on the state to make sure we are not holding people up to ridicule or denying them important privileges and rights. We need a dispassionate and scholarly review of the evidence.”

Warden asked Iacopino, “You’re sure the board is balanced?”

Iacopino replied, “I am so used to being in the minority on these issues. This one is not weighted to either side. It’s better than most I've seen.”

A state rep suggested streamlining the board by eliminating one of the two victim advocacy groups in its membership. That prompted Amanda Grady Sexton, lobbyist for the Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence, to speak.

“I hope you would keep them both,” she testified. “If one (of the victims rights groups) goes, I’d suggest you get rid of the sex offender on the board too. But we would welcome all these parties to the table. They should have a say in any revision of sex offender statutes.”

Kate Kirkwood, the vice chairman of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform, told lawmakers she has a loved one on the public sex offender registry.

“None of us understood it would be for life,” she said. “He is unable to get work, and his family suffers. He can’t be the only one in this situation.”

Tom Adams, a CCJR board member, said these laws have a huge impact on victims and tax rates.

“It’s important to get victims and defense groups sitting in one place,” Adams said. “They can build consensus to minimize conflict. It can become hard and passionate in (legislative) committee.”

Marjorie Morales was a founding board member of CCJR, but stepped down recently to move out of state. She urged lawmakers to pass evidence-based laws.

“We need to define sex offenders better,” she said. “There are few strangers waiting in the bushes to abduct and abuse children. Sometimes it’s consensual sex between teenagers. But we give them all a life sentence.”

Rep. Kyle Tasker (R-Nottingham) told her the state regularly limits freedom when people leave jail. “They can’t have a gun,” he observed.

Morales replied that sex offenders face residency restrictions.

“And they’re labeled,” she said. “Anybody can look them up.”


Testimony in favor of SB 277 on April 3, 2012

By Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR

All around the country sex offender statutes are named for 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 laws to honor the memories of lost children 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 last summer 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.