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Do Sex Offender Registration Laws Actually Make Us Safer?

June 13, 2010

Cleveland.com: Do sex offender registration laws actually make us safer?

Within weeks of the disturbing discovery of 11 decomposing women at the home of convicted sex offender Anthony Sowell — the suspected serial killer had inspired new statewide legislation. A law, proposed by State Sen. Nina Turner, called for stepped-up registration and monitoring of sex offenders convicted of committing the most serious crimes. At least four other proposed laws already were being considered to tweak aspects of Ohio’s sex offender registration and notification laws.

But many now question whether the piling on of laws — which cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year — make communities any safer, or just lull them into feeling so. And they wonder whether real predators become lost in the swelling ranks of registering offenders.

Attorney General Richard Cordray said he understands why people use tragedies, such as the Sowell case, as springboards for lawmaking. “People want to have the satisfaction of responding to things,” he said. “There is always pressure to have Joe Smith’s Law or Becky Jones’ law to help make sense out of a tragedy.”

Is that a useful approach? “The answer is, sometimes,” Cordray said.

However, when it comes to sex crimes, recent long-range studies have concluded that the costly registration and monitoring laws do not reduce the number of new crimes or new victims.

A separate Plain Dealer analysis found many local sex offenders ignore residency restrictions or lie about where they are living. And sex offenders on the registry convicted of new sex crimes during the time period reviewed most often did not re-offend near where they were registered as living.

Those types of revelations and concerns about the overall impact of sex offender laws have spurred a divergent coalition of sexual assault victim advocates, public defenders and local officials to call for Ohio to rethink its approach to the complicated issue.

“We think that these type of laws are well intended, but they are misguided and very limiting,” Cleveland Rape Crisis Center President and CEO Megan O’Bryan said.

O’Bryan said laws create a false sense of security for the public and concentrate a vast amount of resources and attention toward a small number of offenders — the very few who are caught and prosecuted.

The concept also capitalizes on the fear of stranger attacks, when family members, friends or acquaintances commit most sex crimes.

“Just like the public needs to be educated about these issues, so do the lawmakers,” O’Bryan said.

Lawmakers need to support prevention, education and treatment for both victims and perpetrators of sexual assault, she said.

Policy driven by anger

It has been more than 15 years since vivid details of the rape and strangulation of a 7-year-old New Jersey girl ignited a much-publicized national crusade to protect the public from sex offenders living among us.

Megan Kanka’s parent’s anguish turned to anger when they became aware that Megan’s killer — a man who moved in 30 yards from their doorstep — already had been convicted of sexually assaulting another child.

The emotion fueled a wave of state and federal legislation in the mid-1990s aimed at convicted sex offenders.

The laws were intended to make the public safer by forcing those convicted of sex crimes to register their addresses with local police and, in cases of serious or repeat offenders, to notify their neighbors.

At the time, many states and localities — including Ohio — already had laws on the books forcing certain sex criminals to register with the police.

Ohio’s law, originally passed in 1963, called for “habitual sex offenders” to register their addresses for a decade. Those registries included fingerprints and photographs.

But the information was not public, and enforcement was haphazard. And the cost and effectiveness of the sweeping laws were a secondary consideration.

Program costs become burden

A year ago, a federally funded study by the New Jersey Department of Corrections and Rutgers University examined the impact of “Megan’s Law” in the state.

The study found the registries and notification did not reduce the number of new offenses or new victims. Numbers of reported sex offenses have dropped nationwide in recent years. But that decline started before the laws were in place.

The researchers concluded that “given the lack of demonstrated effect of Megan’s law on sexual offenses, the growing costs may not be justifiable.” They estimated the statewide cost in New Jersey to be at least $5.1 million a year.

Cuyahoga County Sheriff Reid, whose office is required to register, verify and publish where sex offenders live, said he could not say how much the department pays for the efforts.

But he said to comply with the laws, he has to pay salaries for deputies to register offenders, cars for them to drive and verify addresses, to update the office’s website identifying offenders, and postage for sending out notification. The entire cost falls to the department.

In 2008, Ohio trumpeted its accomplishment of becoming the first state to comply with a sweeping set of federal laws that sought to standardize how sex offenders are categorized and registered across the country, called the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.

Only two other states have complied with the federal mandate so far and some have declined to do so even though they stand to lose some federal funding.

Before 2008, Ohio had a system that judged the risk of sex offenders to the community on a case-by-case basis, through psychological assessments and a hearing in front of a judge.

Now offenders are classified based solely on their offense. The majority of offenders are in the “most-serious” category, which forces them into more rigorous registration for life.

The Ohio Supreme Court last week pushed slightly back on the Adam Walsh system in a decision that erased the retroactive nature of the law. So thousands of sex offenders who were reclassified for crimes committed before 2008 will go back to their previous court-ordered sex offender classifications. Those convicted of sex crimes in 2008 or after will register with the new system.

Some think the new, more stringent rules work. Others think slapping the same label on people based on their offense and not the likelihood to re-offend is a waste of resources.

“I think we took a huge step backward when we threw out our risk-based system and implemented this offense system,” said Amy Borror, spokeswoman for the state public defender’s office.

It makes more sense to center attention on offenders that mental health experts deemed most likely to commit new crimes, she said.

“The folks that are more likely to re-offend will now get lost in the masses,” she said.

Falling through the cracks

Anthony Sowell still awaits trial on charges that he killed the 11 women found in his home on Imperial Avenue and raped or attacked several others. He has pleaded not guilty.

Sowell’s trial may answer some questions for the community.

But what it probably won’t reveal is whether any specific laws would have prevented the tragedy.

Sowell was a registered sex offender from the time he stepped out of prison in 2005, where he had been for attempted rape. At the time, he was seen as a low risk to re-offend, and his neighbors weren’t notified when he moved in.

Even when the law changed in 2008 and he was classified as a higher-risk offender, his neighbors still weren’t notified because he hadn’t moved to a new address.

But sheriff’s deputies knocked on his door periodically, and he chatted them up as the women’s bodies were in his home and buried in his yard.

Deputies, in fact, paid a surprise visit to his home on the same day he is accused of raping one woman.

Cordray said he thinks law enforcement still needs more leeway in monitoring sex offenders considered the most serious, such as allowing officers to enter the offenders’ homes.

“Nobody went into the Sowell house because they didn’t have the authority to,” Cordray said.

But will continuing to change the laws make a difference?

“We just have to be realistic,” Borror said. “We are never going to create a completely air-tight system. I would just hope that at some point Ohio would be willing to pull back from this reactionary way of making sex offender policy and go about it in a more deliberate way.”

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