Sex offender registry bill seeks change

Posted April 17, 2009, at 9:25 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Debate resumed Friday among legislators on whether Maine should modify the state’s sex offender registry laws, but lawmakers received a clear message that the governor might not support some of those changes.

“The governor will oppose any changes that remove offenders from the registry without addressing risk,” said Maine Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan, who testified on behalf of Gov. John Baldacci.

Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, told the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that his bill aims to remove any language from state law that characterized the sex offender registry as punitive. It also would give courts more discretion on which restrictions sex offenders should adhere to as opposed to the current approach, which is essentially one size fits all. Finally, LD 568 addresses offenders who committed crimes between 1982 and 1992, but were then added to the sex offender registry after changes to state law in 2005.

“By changing the definition [of registrants], we punished people [retroactively],” Sykes testified, explaining that under his bill, some registrants would be removed.

That was the major sticking point for Jordan, who testified on the governor’s behalf against the bill.

Jordan later echoed the same concerns about Sen. Stan Gerzofsky’s bill, LD 1157, which is similar but recommends a few more changes than Sykes’ version and also would result in offenders being removed from the registry.

The public safety commissioner took the governor’s position on the issue a little further during the discussion on the Brunswick Democrat’s bill.

“The governor feels strongly about the safety of children and he thinks the public needs access to that information,” she said. “Until a better system to judge risk is created, the governor believes we should stick with what works.”

Compounding the problem — both sides agreed — is that creating a risk assessment model would require additional resources at a time when none is available.

Friday’s debate was reminiscent of a similar discussion last year around a bill, LD 446, that looked very much like LD 1157 and LD 568. That bill passed through the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and then through the House and Senate. But for the same concerns Jordan expressed Friday, the governor pocket-vetoed the bill by not signing it after the Legislature had adjourned.

Members of the committee appeared frustrated with Jordan’s — and the governor’s — stance during Friday’s public hearing, particularly after they spent most of the day hearing from people who supported changes.

Janette Bragdon of Searsport testified on behalf of her father, Clyde Nickerson, who was convicted of statutory rape in the early 1980s. She said her dad, then 19, had consensual sex with his girlfriend, who was under the age of 14. The girl’s doctor found out about the conduct and reported it. Nickerson was convicted and spent time in jail, followed by probation and a spot on Maine’s sex offender registry. Because Nickerson’s crime was a relatively minor sex offense, he was only required to remain on the registry for 10 years. However, when the laws changed in 2005, Nickerson received a letter saying he had to register once again.

Bragdon said her dad has been ridiculed and even threatened for a crime that should be long forgotten.

A woman who identified herself as Jane Doe testified on behalf of her son, who was convicted of a similar crime several years ago. She admitted that her son made a mistake and that he should pay for that mistake, but she also said sex offender laws have gotten out of hand.

“He’s serving a jail sentence, but the registry will be the real punishment,” she said. “The public always assumes the worst.”

Peter Lehman, a sociologist from Thomaston and a former sex offender, has studied sex offender registries in Maine and across the country and said a lot of misinformation exists. Recidivism among sex offenders, Lehman said, is not as high as people think and, in fact, is much lower than almost every other serious crime.

Alysia Melnick, a public policy counselor with the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said the changes made in 2005 that required offenders to essentially re-register for old crimes is almost certainly unconstitutional. Indeed, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is in the process of debating that argument.

The committee briefly discussed creating a so-called tiered system, which other states have done, that creates categories for types of offenders. Relatively minor offenders would still register, but only police would have access to the information.

In the end, though, the discussion steered back to risk. Commissioner Jordan was willing to concede that no risk assessment model is going to be perfect, but right now nothing exists.

Rep. Sykes said he hopes the governor is willing to come up with a way to address what he feels are needed changes to the registry, but he was not overly optimistic.

“It seems like there are a lot of roadblocks to where we want to go,” he said.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will hold a work session on May 6 to decide whether one or both of the bills move forward to the full Legislature.

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