Reworking Sex Registry

Posted Jan. 08, 2011, at 12:27 a.m.

State and federal laws appear to be on a collision course when it comes to sex offenders. Federal laws have become increasingly strict and demanding, while the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has raised serious concerns about some requirements in existing state law.

Balancing these two pressures will make the work of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee especially difficult in this realm.

On the federal side, the pressure comes in the form of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, legislation signed in 2006 aimed at conforming state rules for sex offenders. A key provision of the law requires a three-tiered system based on the severity of the crime and age of the victim. Those in tier III must meet every three months with designated officials.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court expressed concerns about such a requirement in Maine’s law.

In 2007, the 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 require fingerprinting every 90 days for offenders convicted since 1982. The case was brought by a man who said the registry violated his rights by imposing punishment that did not exist when he pleaded guilty in the 1980s to a crime against a family member.

The changes 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. The court said it needed more information before ruling on the merits of the case and sent it back to Kennebec County Superior Court, where it remains pending.

A year before the court ruling, two men on the registry were killed by a man from Canada who reviewed their information on the state’s sex offender website, the most popular in state government.

What two justices called “shaming and branding” often leads to social isolation and depression, which could impede rehabilitation and cause some to re-offend. The registry requirements may thus be harming, rather than protecting, public safety.

That is the crux of the problem that the Criminal Justice Committee must deal with. At what point does a sex offender registry — and its many requirements — change from a helpful tool to a detriment?

Failure to comply with the Adam Walsh Act would mean a loss of federal funds. But the fact that only three states and two Native American tribes are currently in compliance shows that there are many problems with the federal law.

In recent years, lawmakers have addressed some legal concerns by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Some sex offenders can now petition to be removed from the registry requirement if they were sentenced after Jan. 1, 1982, and before the 1999 sex offender law. The Legislature also has considered adopting a tiered system with stricter requirements for the worst offenders.

The bottom line is that the state’s registry should satisfy public safety objectives without unnecessary negative consequences.

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