AUGUSTA, Maine — The U.S. Senate is considering a bill to create a national arsonist registry, which members of Maine’s congressional delegation agree is a good idea if the details can be worked out.
The U.S. House of Representatives last fall passed the Managing Arson Through Criminal History Act, similar to the bill now under consideration in the Senate.
“I voted for it because it is needed,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine. “Lives, property and natural resources are lost unnecessarily each year due to arson.”
He said that while the wildfires in Western states have grabbed the headlines and was the reason the measure was introduced in the House, Maine has seen an increase in arson cases during this recession.
The House measure had strong bipartisan support and was passed on a voice vote, Michaud said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe agreed the registry is “a good idea.”
“It would require convicted arsonists and bombers to report where they live, work and go to school,” she said. “It would be helpful to law enforcement officials if they had this as a resource.”
Snowe said she supports the registry idea but wants to see the final version that will come from the Senate Judiciary Committee before deciding whether she will vote for the measure. She said it needs to provide resources to the states to implement the registry, and it must be paid for.
“There have been cases where forest fires have been started by arsonists with previous convictions, but that information was not communicated to law enforcement officials,” said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. “I think it is just another good tool for a state like ours.”
She said the registry would be a tool for law enforcement and would not be available to the public. In today’s society people move around frequently and the registry will help police keep track of convicted arsonists as they move from state to state, Pingree said.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the House-passed bill is not paid for and also does not fund grants to the states to operate the system. She said she will not support that or any other measure until she talks with Maine firefighters and the state fire marshal about the proposals.
“There is a bill in the Senate introduced by Sen. [Diane] Feinstein [D-Calif.] last fall that is similar to the House bill,” Collins said, “but the bill has not been worked by the Judiciary Committee.”
Collins said she believes the idea is a “good one” but, like so many proposals in Congress, the details are important. She wants to see what comes from the committee and what Maine officials say before deciding whether she can support such a measure.
The House-passed bill requires the Justice Department to set up the law enforcement-only registry on a secure Web site. It requires anyone convicted of arson in any state or federal territory to register where they live and update that information if they move.
The measure also requires the Justice Department to develop computer software for the states to use to implement the registry, but does not provide for grants to the states to operate the system which would depend on state agencies to update and maintain.
“That is a problem for us,” said Maine Fire Marshal John Dean. He said that while there is no final version of the bill, requiring the states to set up a process to have convicted arsonists register with the state, and then follow up to make sure someone is living where they say they are will take resources the state does not have.
“Yes, it is a good idea,” he said. “We have had serial arsonists that have been in Maine that moved to other states, and moved back to Maine. It is worthwhile to keep track of these people.”
Dean, who is a past president of the national organization of state fire marshals, said there has been discussion of a national registry for several years, and state lawmakers considered a state registry earlier this decade. He said it failed because of the cost of establishing and maintaining the system.
“This is serious business,” he said. “Even if no one is killed, we are putting firefighters in danger. People are losing their property, so we certainly want to keep track of serial arsonists and stop them.”
Dean hopes Congress does establish a national registry but also provides the funding to establish and maintain the system.