Tiered system for sex offenders remains elusive for lawmakers

Posted May 20, 2011, at 8:16 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on Friday deferred action once again on legislation that would adopt a tiered classification system for registered sex offenders even though the inaction could have legal and financial implications.

LD 1514, submitted by Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, would update Maine’s Sex Offender Registry and Notification Act, which was first passed in 1999, by creating three tiers of offenders and a risk assessment tool to classify offenders into those tiers.

Members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee were generally supportive of Haskell’s bill during a work session Friday, but they ultimately decided to push any decision to the next legislative session.

“I certainly would like to see us take a direction,” Haskell said during the session. “We’ve been plowing the same ground now for all this time.”

After the vote, Haskell said she wasn’t necessarily frustrated with the result.

“The bill was submitted late and it was a comprehensive bill,” she said. “There are a lot of freshman legislators who didn’t have time to get up to speed.”

Still, there may be increasing pressure to make changes soon. Maine is one of dozens of states that are still trying to meet new requirements of the federal Adam Walsh Act. If Maine does not meet those requirements by late July, it could lose Department of Justice funding.

Lawmakers in several Legislatures dating back to 2006 have discussed implementing a tiered system for sex offenders, similar to what Massachusetts and other states have done, but actual changes have been elusive.

Haskell’s bill would separate offenders into 10-year registrants, 25-year registrants and lifetime registrants and would further establish a risk assessment process to determine the threat level an offender poses to society.

The biggest concerns over LD 1514 were related to risk assessment. Some critics are worried about the cost of implementing such a program. Others are not convinced risk assessment is reliable or consistent.

Legislators voted to carry over LD 1514 to the next legislative session, but they also committed to holding a workshop over the summer to address any lingering concerns.

Although they delayed action on Haskell’s bill, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee did vote to send forward an amended version of LD 1025, a bill that also proposes changes to the sex offender registry. Sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, that bill would require Maine’s registry to show whether someone would be listed for 10 years or for life. Currently, there is no way to differentiate between low-risk offenders and high-risk predators.

Diamond said even making that minor change would do more than any other Legislature in recent years has done to address inequities in Maine’s sex offender laws.

The committee also approved on Friday LD 1317, sponsored by Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, which prohibits information collected by the State Bureau of Identification from being disseminated to the public except as part of the state-run registry.

Many private registries have been created by nongovernmental groups, but the information is not updated regularly and often contains incomplete and sometimes inaccurate data, according to Matthew Ruel, director of the State Bureau of Identification, which manages the registry.

That bill is likely to be reviewed by the Judiciary Committee because it has implications on Maine’s Freedom of Access laws.

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.

Ruel said the state could further discourage private registries by creating mapping capabilities on Maine’s site, but legislators were not overly supportive of that idea.

“I’m going to be careful about putting any more information out on that registry,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick.

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