Nebraska sex offenders testify for change in registry law

September 27, 2019

Twenty-eight people who were registered sex offenders, or the wife, mother, father, brother or counselor of sex offenders, lined up to give testimony to the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Friday, asking for changes to the Nebraska registry law.

The Judiciary Committee embarked on a study of the sex offender registry law over the interim to determine if changes are needed and, if so, what they should be. 

The registered offenders told the committee about how the registry created life-altering situations in which they couldn't get jobs, or only the lowest-paying jobs, or were denied housing. Spouses and children were punished along with them, and in some cases their inclusion on the registry led to divorce because of the limitations it placed on their lives.

One man said he had been shot in the back because of his presence on the registry. 

"Almost 6,000 Nebraska families live under discrimination and paranoia created by the registry," said Deborah Whitt.

Families are deeply and negatively affected by the unintended burdens of this law, she said. It is unjust, and does not protect people, but rather creates in communities climates of suspicion, anxiety, hate, bullying and fear. 

If offenders have served their sentences, done all the programming and therapy, why continue to discriminate against them, Whitt asked. 

Sue Hill, whose son spent nine years in a federal center in Oklahoma City, said he had prepared for his life when discharged in 2017, but nothing prepared him for the registry.

"We've been broken by the experience of having a loved one on the registry," Hill said. "You feel like a child needing permission to go anywhere or do anything."

There's no privacy for the registrant or the family, she said.

A number of those who testified were members of Nebraskans Unafraid, which offers support and education on "how to survive and thrive despite the public-shaming registry," according to its website.

Ryan Post, assistant attorney general, said his office had litigated numerous challenges to the sex offender registry and offered to continue discussions on the registry law.

"We must recognize there are some, at least some, on the registry who remain a real risk to reoffend, and we want the committee to make sure that's a consideration, as well," Post said. 

Committee Chairman Steve Lathrop said senators will work with Attorney General Doug Peterson to develop changes that could range from having a private registry, rather than a public one as Nebraska has now, one that's completely risk-based or having some kind of appeal process.

"Safety is important," Lathrop said. "We want to make sure the original purpose of the registry is achieved, without causing all the collateral damage to people who can't actually get on with life. ... The issue is whether they are at risk to reoffend."

It shouldn't be designed to be an additional form of punishment, he said.

The committee will also investigate what other states are doing. 

Michigan, for example, was ordered in May to change its registry law, which had been ruled unconstitutional three years earlier by a federal appeals court, according to the Detroit Free Press. That law applied to all offenders, even if they had gone decades without committing crimes, prohibited offenders from living, working or standing within 1,000 feet of a school, and required immediate registration of email addresses and vehicles, and reports to police as often as four times a year.

The appeals court found the law violated constitutional protections against increasing penalties for a crime after its adjudication.

The Nebraska law has three registration terms: 15 years if the offense was punishable by one year or less in prison, accompanied by annual check-ins with a sheriff's office; 25 years if punishable by more than one year, with check-ins every six months; and life if convicted of an aggravated offense or the person had a prior sex offense, with check-ins every three months. 

The Nebraska law, which was made more encompassing in 2009, was changed from a risk-based system to an offense-based system.

A 2013 study by the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Justice Research showed the typical registered sex offender in Nebraska was a white male over the age of 26. The typical victim was a female acquaintance, age 12 to 17. By far, the most common type of offense was fondling.

The most common classification of offenders was a Level 3, or the most serious. Although violence and/or a weapon were present in almost a quarter of the offenses, serious bodily injury was a rare event.

Those testifying Friday suggested lifting all in-state travel reporting requirements, allowing electronic check-ins, removing the felony charge if a person forgets to register, narrowing the list of offenses required to register and allowing a better way for a person to be removed from the registry.

Michael Wiggins committed his crime in 1985 when he was 23. He now runs a transition house for sex offenders. 

He's had one sex offense in his life, he said, and no one would say he's a risk.

"I'm sorry. I can't change it. I've paid, I'm paying. I'll pay for the rest of my life," he said. "I've chosen not to get married. Not to have children, not that I don't love children. I just didn't want them to have to grow up with the stigmas that I've got around me."


JoANNE YOUNG Lincoln Journal Star

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