Two years after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court indicated that parts of the state’s sex offender registry were unconstitutional, lawmakers have yet to make necessary changes to the system and they don’t appear ready to do during the current legislative session.
Although a study committee offered clear recommendations for improving the state’s sex offender registration laws, its work appears to have been largely ignored. This is unfortunate and simply delays needed changes.
In 2007, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court raised significant questions about the state’s sex offender registry. The court was especially concerned about changes made in recent years to require Internet posting of personal information about offenders, to restrict where offenders can live, and to re-quire fingerprinting every 90 days for offenders convicted since 1982.
The changes, especially the Internet posting of information about all convicted sex offenders, have made the law significantly more punitive and intrusive, changing the nature of the sanctions from civil penalties to a retroactive increase in criminal penalties. The justices suggested this retroactive increase violates the Maine Constitution.
Lawmakers rightly are concerned that the state will face more such lawsuits without changes to the registry.
To begin to fix this, the Legislature last year passed a bill that set up criteria for evaluating whether offenders convicted between 1982 and 1992 — the group added retroactively to the registry requirements — must continue to register. The bill attempted to make distinctions between those at low and high risk of re-offending. Because of concerns that hundreds of offenders may no longer have had to register, Gov. John Baldacci pocket-vetoed the legislation.
A committee was set up to find a better solution. Their report, issued in November, called for a tiered system, which would make the state’s registration and notification system more useful. Those most likely to commit another sexual crime would be in a top tier, which would include Internet post-ing of information. Information about lower-risk offenders would be provided to law enforcement officials who would decide whether and how to share this information with the public.
The committee also called for risk analysis, not just conviction information, to determine what tier an offender should be placed in.
Such a system, with only limited Internet postings and an opportunity for offenders to prove they should be removed from the list, could return the registry to its original purpose of tracking and public notification, without the unnecessary negative — and likely unconstitutional — consequences.
Instead of this logical change, the Criminal Justice Committee is again considering bills like the one the governor rejected and another to ease residency restrictions. These bills contain provisions that move in the right direction, but the larger problems of unnecessary shaming and a useful registry are not answered.
A tiered system, with an appropriate risk assessment, is overdue.