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S.D. Sex Offender Registry Needs Work

January 26, 2010

yankton.net: S.D. Sex Offender Registry Needs Work.

The South Dakota Legislature is taking an overdue look at the state’s sex offender registry law, and this will hopefully lead to some needed modifications to the system. The current sex offender registry was set up by the Legislature in 1994 and requires lifetime registration of all offenders regardless of the date of the crime, and they must re-register every six months. The law was modified in 1997 to require any juvenile age 15 or older convicted of a sex crime to sign up for the registry, which is public information and is now available online.

The intent of the law is well meaning. It was set up, according to the state, “to provide information to the public regarding offenders living within their community.” However, it was set up as a stringent, black-or-white system, creating a presumption that all sex offenders are equal in the severity of their crimes and their threats to society. It does not allow differentiation, for instance, for someone who has worked through the years to rehabilitate himself or herself and no longer poses a threat to society; or someone who was 16 and was convicted of having one-time sexual contact with a 14-year-old.

As Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, noted in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, the state has thrown “a wide net” over all offenders. Worse, it blinds parents from being able to distinguish if the sexual offender listed on the registry is someone who is no longer a threat or a person who may be a habitual predator. Erring on the side of caution, which anyone would do, thus creates a penalizing climate for those who have worked to right themselves.

The bills now being considered in Pierre would remove the indiscriminate blanket thrown over all offenders and grant them the potential to move to different categories. The chief bill being considered would place offenders in three different categories based on the seriousness of their crime, with tier 1 and tier 2 allowing the registered offenders to apply to a judge for removal after 10 and 25 years, respectively, based on certain qualifications, including rehabilitation. An offender in tier 3 would still remain on the registry for life.

This would modify South Dakota’s sex offender registry law to match those of many other states, including Nebraska, which has operated on a tier system for years. (Coincidentally, Nebraska just toughened its registry system, going from a two-tier system of either 10 years to life, to a three-tier system of 15 years, 25 years and life. But it still differentiates between the severities of crimes.)

There is also the issue of aligning state law with the Adam Walsh Act, a 2006 federal law that mandates a national three-tier system for sex offenders. It penalizes states that do not comply. While some people will instinctively balk at being muscled by Washington, it should not obscure the fact that our state’s registry needs modification and a sense of fairness.

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