Thursday, August 29, 2002

Sex offender registry expanding

Published in the Current

Thousands of people convicted of sexual crimes are required under a revised state law to register with their local police department by Sept. 1 – a mandate the Maine Civil Liberties Union believes should be challenged in court.

At issue is how far the state wants to go back in a person’s criminal record. Originally the state’s sex offender registration law required that all people convicted of gross sexual assault of minors, which includes rape, since June 30, 1992, had to register with state and local police. In 1999 the legislature expanded the law to include a number of other offenses, ranging from unlawful sexual contact to nonparental kidnapping. From that date forward, all people convicted of those offenses also had to register.

In September 2001, the state Legislature made the 1999 law retroactive to the original 1992 date. All offenders convicted of any of the crimes since 1992 are required to register by Sept. 1 of this year.

The backward-looking expansion of the law is expected to add about 3,300 people to the sex offender registry. In mid-July the list held about 750 names, some of which were duplicates. The new list is projected to include 4,000 people.

Registration happens at the police station in the town where the offender lives, and involves appearing at the police station and giving a photograph and a set of fingerprints to the police, as well as providing proof of address, according to Lt. Jackie Theriault of the State Bureau of Identification, a part of the Maine State Police.

Local police send the information to the state, where it is compiled into a statewide registry.

Local police also have to decide whether to notify neighbors of the offender.

Neighbors of registered sex offenders are not always notified. Theriault said this is up to local authorities, who can decide whether to tell neighbors, and how wide an area to alert, if notification occurs.

“We deal with them on a case-bycase basis,” said Scarborough Police Chief Robert Moulton.

“You’re walking a tightrope,” he said, between the public’s right to know and the registrant’s right to privacy. He said generally the department would notify the neighbors about someone classified as a “sexually violent predator” and would be less likely to notify people about a registrant classed as a “sex offender,” the other designation on the registry. Violent predators include those who are repeat offenders and first-time offenders who have committed especially serious sexual crimes.

“It depends on the offense,” Moulton said, and on the department’s perception of risk to the community.

Moulton said the town has four offenders registered, and police have notified neighbors two or three times in the last two or three years. They have confined that notification to the immediate neighborhood where the registrant lives.

Moulton said some registrants have “settled in” even after notification, while others have left. He said the department has not been notified of any retribution problems, with neighbors harassing or otherwise targeting registrants for abuse. Moulton also said he has not had problems with registered sex offenders committing further sex offenses while in town.

Cape Elizabeth Police Chief Neil Williams said the town has not been home to any registered sex offenders since the law took effect. “We’ve been lucky,” Williams said. He said a small number of offenders have visited people in town or worked in town, but had not caused any problems and had not stayed very long.

If a sex offender were to move to town or if an existing resident were to be required to register, Williams said, “we would probably notify the neighborhood.”

How it works
Maine’s sex offender registry was created in 1991 by the state Legislature, which required that beginning June 30, 1992, offenders convicted of gross sexual assault of minors under the age of 14 register with state and local police when they were released from prison or immediately after conviction, if the sentence did not include jail time.

Convicted offenders were required to tell police where they lived. If they did not change residence, re-registration was not required, according to Theriault. In 1995, the Legislature changed the law to include offenders convicted of gross sexual assault of a victim under age 18. That law became effective in 1996.

In 1999, the Legislature expanded the law to apply to 12 other lesser offenses: gross sexual assault as a sexually violent crime, sexual exploitation of a minor, sexual abuse of minors, unlawful sexual contact, visual sexual aggression against a child, sexual misconduct with a child under age 14, kidnapping (nonparental), criminal restraint, violation of privacy, incest, aggravated promotion of prostitution (victim under age 18) and patronizing prostitution of a minor.

The 1999 law applied only to offenders convicted after the law took effect. It also created two separate categories of registrants, “sex offender” and the repeat offender or “sexually violent predator.” The latest revision, in September 2001, rolled back the time frame on the new offenses to June of 1992.

Sex offenders are required to register annually for 10 years after release from prison or sentencing, if there is no prison time involved. Sexually violent predators are required to register every 90 days for the rest of their lives.

In each case, the registry mails a registration form, which cannot be forwarded, to the last known address of the offender. Registrants must take the form and a recent photo to the local police department, where police will verify their identities and take a set of fingerprints.

The records are then sent back to the registry office in Augusta, where the list is updated if necessary. Registrants must also pay $25 per year in administrative fees, Theriault said.

If registrants move, they have 10 days to notify the state registry office, whether the new home is in Maine or outside the state. If moving out of Maine to a state with a sex offender law of its own, a registrant must also notify the authorities in that state.

Similarly, sex offenders convicted in other states where they are required to register, must also notify Maine police if they move into the state.

Criticism of retroactive change
The Maine Civil Liberties Union is criticizing the sex offender registry for covering too broad a range of crimes and, in particular, the new requirement to register people convicted as long ago as 10 years ago.

“In our view, requiring someone to register can often amount to punishment,” said Louise Roback, the MCLU’s executive director, who recently came to Maine from a position as the executive director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, where she dealt with sex offender registry issues, among other concerns.

Roback said imposing punishments is the role of the courts and not the legislature. Further, she said, imposing additional punishments for crimes committed in the past could be a violation of constitutional rights.

Once a person serves their time in prison or on parole or probation, Roback said, “they have paid their debt to society. ”

Further, some of the people now required to register, she said, are criminals who committed an offense long ago and may not have run afoul of the law since. “It is unusual to go back so many years,” she said.

Roback said listing on a sex offender registry tars the reputation of a person who may be on the way back to productive participation in mainstream society.

It may, she said, also result in “severe incidents of vigilantism,” which she said she saw in New York.

Roback said she understands the intent of the law, and said it seems to be legitimate. “People wanted to protect their children from child molesters,” she said. But now the list of offenses requiring registration is too large, she said.

“Legislators just can’t stop” adding offenses to the list for which registration is required. The list presently includes at least three crimes not directly related to sex acts or sexual behavior: non-parental kidnapping, criminal restraint and violation of privacy.

Not enough protection
Further, legislators who say the sex offender registry protects children are ignoring a major source of sex offenses against children.

“The vast majority of sex offenses committed against children are committed in the home by people that the parents trust,” Roback said. A sex offender registry does nothing about that, she said.

If the idea was for people to take action to protect themselves and their children from sex offenders, Roback said, the defenses are misdirected.

“The real danger is something that parents are overlooking,” she said.

She is not opposed to “reasonable measures” taken by parents and legislators to protect children from sexual predators. But she said creating lists serves only to drive offenders “underground,” and prevents them from seeking services they may need to be healthy, functioning members of their communities.

“It does tend to ostracize people from society,” Roback said.

Challenging the law
Roback said the MCLU is open to considering a challenge to the law, and is hoping to hear from sex offenders affected by the law change, who feel they are being wronged by the new requirement to register. “We haven’t heard from anyone complaining about it,” she said.

Often, she said, convicted criminals are reluctant to stand up for their rights, because filing a lawsuit would require them to identify themselves as sex offenders. She did say that anonymous lawsuits could be a possibility.

She said challenging this law is important because it may violate constitutional protection against what is called “ex post facto” legislation, or laws that outlaw behaviors that have already occurred, or add punishments to sentences handed down in the past.

In the meantime, state officials are encouraging anyone who thinks they might need to register to contact state police, rather than risk violating the law.

“I want them to call us and we’ll help them,” said Lt. Theriault. If people do not register, they are in violation of state law and can be charged with a Class D misdemeanor offense.