State to craft new sex crime laws

Posted Jan. 02, 2011, at 6:24 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Veteran members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee are bracing for what they expect will be several proposals to address federal requirements for sex offender registries and state laws limiting where sex offenders can live.

“You can be certain we will see many bills, just as we have in the past,” said Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, co-chairman of the committee. “Our committee has always had a lot of legislation to consider.”

He expects two major areas will be involved with the provisions of the federal Adam Walsh law that penalizes states with loss of federal funds if they do not comply with the law requiring convicted sex offenders to register with the state. He said another area would be proposals to limit where sex offenders can live, an area that has led to several bills in the past.

“I think we need to take a comprehensive look at what the law says, what we would be required to do and what it will cost us,” Plummer said, “and balance that against what we here in Maine think is the right thing to do.”

The Department of Justice granted the state a one-year extension to comply with the provisions of the law last summer with the understanding the state would comply.

“The SMART Office [Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending and Tracking] acknowledges Maine’s efforts to meet SORNA’s [Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act] requirements and expects Maine to substantially implement SORNA by the statutory deadline of July 17, 2011,” wrote Linda Baldwin, director of the SMART office at the U.S. Justice Department. “Failure to do so will result in a 10 percent loss in funding.”

That funding is from the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, of which the state could lose approximately $166,000 in federal law enforcement grants based on last year’s spending.

A budget for the current year has not been adopted by Congress.

“The committee has not gone along with Adam Walsh so far,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, a 10-year veteran of the committee who has been both House chairman and Senate chairman in previous sessions. “We have had some serious questions about it; we have been waiting to see if there would be any changes coming from Washington. The committee will have a lively conversation, a lively discussion.”

He said Maine has reacted to both the federal law and Maine Supreme Judicial Court rulings, although several court cases are still challenging portions of the law.

Maine law now provides an opportunity for certain sex offenders to petition to be removed from the requirement to register if they were sentenced after Jan. 1, 1982, and before the 1999 sex offender law.

The state law also provides the opportunity for those convicted in other states to petition for removal from Maine’s registration requirements, but only if they are now living in Maine and have complied with Maine law since Sept. 12, 2009, when the petition process was first effective. It also limits the opportunity to petition to those offenders who had completed their sentences at least 10 years before seeking the relief.

“Complying with Adam Walsh has been a concern in many states,” said Rep. Ann Haskell, D-Portland, a past co-chairwoman of the panel. “I think we will see a lot of proposals to make some incremental changes here in Maine.”

For example, the Adam Walsh law requires a three-tier registry where a juvenile convicted of a single offense with another juvenile must register and regularly report, for life, his or her residence and other information such as the make and model of his or her car and its license plate.

The law also requires states to have lifetime registration for the most serious of offenders, such as those that involve sexual abuse or aggravated sexual abuse; abusive sexual contact against a minor less than 13 years old; or an offense involving kidnapping of a minor.

But the laws and definitions of sex crimes vary greatly by state, and creating a registry based on the risk of a person offending would be very expensive, experts have told Maine lawmakers.

“But I think we can come up with a model of a three-tier system that would work in Maine,” Haskell said. “I am submitting a bill that I hope will do that.”

Lawmakers also expect several bills dealing with where sex offenders can live. There have been several proposals in past sessions to increase the distance from schools or day care centers from the current 750-foot radius.

“That was a compromise,” said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, a committee member and a retired state trooper. “We probably will have proposals to change that and we will again have to look at finding something that works. “

He agreed that several bills probably will be proposed to change the sex offender registry, but he said he would not support proposals that would undermine the public’s ability to know if sex offenders live in their neighborhood.

“I am concerned about keeping children safe,” he said.

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