Weaknesses of Michigan Sex Offender Registry

April 16, 2010

michiganmessenger.com: Arrest points to weaknesses of sex offender registry in Michigan- Legislation may fix those deficiencies later this year.

Capt. Ray Hall of the Lansing Police Department cautioned last week that the registry is not a very useful tool as currently configured. While the online list does allow civilians to see who is and is not on the list, officials say that the lack of specific information related to sex offenders and their offenses makes the list virtually useless for someone seeking to discern the truly dangerous from the rest of the bunch.

Many people on the list are there for non-predatory crimes, such as urinating in public or Romeo and Juliet relationships — those where one partner is three years older than a minor, say an 18 year old and a 15 year old. State Rep. Rebekkah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), chair of the House Judiciary Committee on the Sex Offender Registry, says grouping such people along with pedophiles and rapists what amounts to “ruining” someone’s life.

Those problems, state lawmakers tell Michigan Messenger, are the target of planned reform legislation they expect to be introduced and passed in the state legislature by the end of the year. Many of those reforms were mandated by the passage in 2006 of the Adam Walsh Act.

The state was supposed to be compliant by the end of 2008 or lose 10 percent of federal Department of Justice money to the state. State officials decided to accept that punishment last year because implementation of the requirements under the act would cost more than the state would bring in from the grants, says Warren. But the game has changed with more federal cash available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), and Warren says the state can’t afford to accept reductions in federal cash.
(i.e. The Feds raised the bribe)

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the sex offender registry is broken and that changes need to be made.

“Our list is pretty expansive and I think … it’s a list that tells us who and when, not necessarily what, but it’s a list that’s more inclusive than most other states,” says Sen. Wayne Kuipers, a Republican from Holland who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We allow ourselves a better working document if we change who’s included on the list and get at the people we should be really fearful of — the predator type sex offender. If we can figure out a way to pare it down to those types of criminals I think the list will be more meaningful and people will be able to have confidence in the list.”

“The public policy purpose of this tool was to give folks some sense of who in their area, in their neighborhood, in their state were folks that were dangerous,” says Rep. Rebekkah Warren. She chairs a House Judiciary Committee dedicated to the sex offender registry and reforms. “A lot of those folks who urinated in public, or had sex with their high school girlfriend, who now have married and have children with them and have become valuable contributors to our economy and our society, those folks being on the list means that when you check the list… it’s astonishing. You pull up all these people. That’s one of the things we want to look at — who needs to be on that list.”

According to guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Justice, required reforms to the Sex Offender Registry include a three-tiered system which will more readily identify dangerous offenders, while suggested reforms include collection and publication of online identities and aliases of offenders, and the publication of information about the specifics of a crime for which an offender is listed.

Those reforms would make the list more useful, says Jackson Chief of Police Matt Heins. “I think the more information you provide to the general public, the better off the community is served by providing that information,” says Heins, whose department monitors an estimated 330 offenders. “And, of course it’s always a fine balance between an individual’s rights to privacy versus what you can make public, provide to the public regarding cases. That will always be a balancing act.”

Warren said she supports such changes. “If we’re going to give people a sentence that is really going to, in some ways, ruin their life, we need to make sure we are deliberative about that. And we need to take the time now to ask if everybody on this list belongs on the list,” Warren says. “We need to make it as useful a tool as it possibly can be and we will all be better off.”

The registry ended up listing juveniles or folks convicted of public urination crimes because of the passage of Megan’s Law. That was the first federal law mandating the development and publishing of public sex offender lists. Michigan, Warren says, had for years collected such information in a private, law enforcement-only list. After the passage of Megan’s Law, the state simply “dumped” its entire list into a public registry.

“When Megan’s law first went into effect, and states had to put that in a public way on the internet, instead of reviewing what our policies had been or looking at the list to see who should be in the public eye — so to speak — we just dumped the whole list into the public eye,” Warren says. “We have people on the registry that in many other states, and now under the Adam Walsh Act — under the federal law — would not have to register and would not have to be on the public list.”

Lansing officials say those reforms can’t come fast enough, and take issue with the legislature’s delaying the changes.

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