AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers heard testimony Monday on bills to stiffen penalties against sex offenders and to revamp the way information on offenders is presented on the state’s popular online registry.
For several years, legislators have debated creating a tiered sex offender registry that differentiates between offenders based on the severity of their crimes and the risk they pose to society.
The debate intensified in 2006 after two events: the passage of a federal law requiring states to implement tiered systems as part of a nationwide registry and the murder of two sex offenders in Maine. The killer, who later took his own life, did not know his two victims or the extent of their crimes but apparently tracked them down through the state’s registry.
Two bills heard Monday by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee seek to address the issue.
The first, LD 1514, would create a three-tiered system along with requirements that offenders register for 10 years, 25 years or for life. The bill also would establish a risk assessment process to determine what level a perceived threat the person poses to society.
The second measure, LD 1025, also would create a risk classification system and require the registry to show whether someone would be listed for 10 years or for life.
Bill sponsor Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said the problem now is that the average person viewing the registry cannot differentiate between a low-risk offender — such as a teenager who had consensual sex with an underage girlfriend or boyfriend — and high-risk predators.
Including whether someone was required to register for 10 years or for life may help the public gauge that offender’s risk, Diamond said.
“We really do have a registry that needs a lot of work,” Diamond told committee members. “If we are going to have a registry that is going to be a tool for the public, as it should be, then it needs to be more efficient and more reliable.”
Walter McKee, an attorney representing the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said his organization supported providing the public information accurately describing the nature of the offense.
But John Pelletier, speaking on behalf of the Maine Criminal Law Advisory Commission, a nine-person body established by statute to examine state criminal laws, expressed concerns about classification systems based on risk assessments because those assessments may not always be reliable or consistent.
Committee members also heard testimony on bills that would create mandatory minimum prison terms for failing to comply with registry requirements and to lengthen prison terms for crimes committed against children by family members or authority figures.
Diamond said the latter bill, which he sponsored, attempts to address the fact that an estimated 90 percent of children who are the victims of sex offenses were assaulted by a family member or someone they knew.
Another measure, LD 624, aims to address a gap in the current law that apparently allows a caregiver who sexually assaults a dependent or incapacitated person within their care to escape having to register.
Bill sponsor Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said he was unaware of the omission. The bill received support from law enforcement officials, prosecutors and advocates for the elderly or disabled.
The Maine Department of Public Safety, meanwhile, is seeking lawmakers’ assistance in discouraging private sex offender registries from popping up on the Web with Maine data.
LD 1317 states that information collected by the department’s State Bureau of Identification as part of the registry cannot be disseminated to the public except as part of the state-run registry.
Bureau director Matthew Ruel testified that the state updates its registry information daily. But when an individual or organization uses the Freedom of Access law to obtain bulk amounts of information on sex offenders in order to create their own private registry, that information is only a snapshot of that particular moment. The private registry would not show when a person has met the 10-year obligation, has successfully petitioned to be removed or other important, updated information.
“The second it leaves our hands, it is old, stale information,” Ruel said.
The committee will hold a work session on the bills on a future date.