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Privacy, Safety Balance at Issue

October 5, 2008 Comments off

kennebecjournal.mainetoday.com (Maine): PRIVACY, SAFETY BALANCE AT ISSUE As information on sex offenders becomes more public, state officials are seeking ways to find common ground.

Maine officials sought guidance last week from experts across the United States on keeping society safe while protecting sex offenders’ rights.

“Sex offenders have always lived in our community,” said Detective Bob Shilling of the Seattle Police Department in Washington. (…and always will, by the way)

The difference today is that community notification and Internet posting of convicted sex offenders can increase worry among neighbors and make offenders targets of harassment.

Maine policymakers brought in the Department of Justice’s Center for Sex Offender Management for aid in dealing with snags with its own policies, partly because having sex offenders’ information on the Internet– including those convicted a decade before the registry began — raises their profile and can bring more problems.

In an article in the Winter 2008 “Washburn Law Journal,” Lara Geer Farley framed the challenge for lawmakers: “At a time when national polls indicate that Americans fear sex offenders more than terrorists, legislators will have to show they have the intelligence and courage to create a society that is safe yet still protects the human rights of everyone.”

He noted a tragic parallel between the two states on opposite sides of the country: Washington state, like Maine, has seen two sex offenders shot and killed by men who learned their whereabouts through information posted by authorities on a sex offender Web site.
Over the years, the Washington state notification system has been refined so a committee does a risk assessment of each inmate before release, and the exact address is provided only to police who verify it in person.

Maine state Sen. William Diamond, D-Windham, chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, described a delicate balance between community safety and sex offender rights. “We need to distinguish the high risk from the low risk within our sex offender registry for the public’s interest in particular,” he said. “Our immediate task is to make a recommendation to the next Legislature on how a tier system can be implemented which includes developing a system for assigning risk levels to each (person) on the sex offender registry.”

“I am convinced we need to have an end-of-sentence review board,” said Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, another committee member.

McCormick said he sees problems arising from Internet posting of sex offense convictions from as far back as 26 years ago, even though the person has lived a law-abiding life since the conviction. “We hear some horror stories,” he said. “They have established their lives and they’re really traumatized. They haven’t reoffended.”

“We are expecting the Maine Supreme Court to rule on one of those cases early next year, which may tell us that our sex offender registry is at least partially unconstitutional,” Diamond said after the conference. “We learned that some other states avoided this problem by not requiring registration during the times before they had a registry.”

Walter McKee, a past president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he would like to see a repeal of the provision that back-dates registerable offenses to include convictions between 1982 and 1992. “They’re the least fair of all,” he said. “I think that repealing the retroactivity would be appropriate and fair.” Going forward, McKee said he wants to trim the list of registerable offenses.

“Take off some of the lower-end offenses that do not have any higher degree of recidivism than any other crime,” he said. “I think everyone agrees that there are a number of sex offenses that we don’t need people to register for.”

Court challenges to the retroactive provisions of Maine’s Sex Offender Registration & Notification Act have counterparts in other states as well.

Ohio officials decided to conform early to the federal Adam Walsh Act and passed enabling legislation that carries retroactive registration requirements.

So far, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office has received more than 4,000 challenges to the state statute, said Erin Rosen, general counsel of the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway, in the Attorney General’s Office.

Rulings in some of those cases favor the challengers: One found sex-offender residency restrictions punitive and said they violate constitutional protections. The Supreme Court of Ohio has said it will decide the issue.

McKee also objects to Maine complying with the Adam Walsh Act. He said the penalty for noncompliance is an estimated $40,000 loss in federal grant money while the compliance cost is estimated to exceed $1.5 million.