Friday, November 20, 2015

Cleveland.com - Sex-offender registry requires reboot in Ohio and the nation: editorial

This is a pretty good editorial from cleveland.com

http://www.cleveland.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/11/sex-offender_registry_requires_reboot_in_ohio_and_the_nation_editorial.html

Sex-offender registry requires reboot in Ohio and the nation: editorial

By Editorial Board 
on November 19, 2015 at 11:33 AM

Title 1 of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 created an all-inclusive state-by-state registry of convicted sex offenders.

Known as the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, Title 1 also attempted the impossible: to protect the public, particularly children, from convicted sexual predators who had done their time and were now back on the street.

It was well-intentioned, codifying rules that mandate states monitor and track sex offenders by having them publicly register their addresses.

Parents, guardians, caregivers, and anyone else can access those records online, or by contacting their local sheriff's department, to see where released sex offenders are living in their neighborhoods.

States were given three years to implement the registry. Noncompliance with the federal law would be punished by a 10 percent cut in millions of dollars of annual federal criminal justice funding.

Ohio, which had a less-rigid sex-registry law already, complied -- creating what critics now call a one-size-fits-all behemoth of a sex registry that wrongly limits judicial discretion, penalizes young people and costs sheriff's departments hundreds of thousands of unneeded dollars to monitor.

You might think that all advocates for rape victims would support the practice of forcing sex offenders to publicly register their addresses after their release from prison. But you would be mistaken.

In fact, SORNA – as the federal registry law is known colloquially -- is today under attack by the very people who advocate for the rights of survivors and victims of sexual assault as well as the judiciary that rules on the consequences of such predatory behavior.

"It's like using an Atom Bomb when a stick of dynamite would do the job," said Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Michael Donnelly.

"It creates this false sense of security," said Sondra Miller, head of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center.

Even the Ohio Supreme Court has weighed in, declaring sections of the state's version of SORNA unconstitutional, according to assistant state public defender Brooke Burns. In 2012 the court ruled that imposing automatic lifetime registration requirements on juveniles was cruel and unusual punishment.

In a 5-2 opinion, the court said the punishment violates the Ohio and United States constitutions because it is cruel and unusual, and because it violates a defendant's right to due process.

"A 19-year-old and his 15-year-old girlfriend have consensual sex," Donnelly said. "He gets labeled as a sex offender for life. He should be punished for violating the law [the age of consent is 16 years old in Ohio], but he's not necessarily a predator."

The registry also misleads the public into believing that the majority of sexual assaults are committed by strangers, Miller said. "Most sexual assaults are committed by family members and acquaintances."

It's not that the registry serves no purpose, Miller said, but its Draconian approach to public safety blunts its effectiveness.

"There are serious sex offenders, predators that the public needs to be protected from, and they are diluted in a sea of individuals who don't pose a threat," Donnelly said.

There also is no "wiggle room," as Burns describes it, for judges to use discretion in determining who gets put on the registry. "The law has to be applied as written."

The time is ripe for a common-sense, evidence-based reboot of Ohio's version of SORNA, and a redo of the federal requirements, as well.

In Ohio, a recent bipartisan legislative criminal-reform initiative provides the vehicle to re-examine Ohio's sex-offender registry. 

The Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee has been tasked with reviewing state criminal statutes and making recommendations that enhance public safety and the just and equitable administration of justice.

Its 24 members include judges, public defenders, prosecutors, politicians and criminal justice advocates.

The committee has broken into working groups to study different sections of the criminal code, said Amy Borror, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Ohio Public Defender. One group is focused on sex-offender registration and notification reform.

There are some 19,400 sex offenders registered in Ohio, according to the state Attorney General's office. In Cuyahoga County, the sheriff's department tracks about 3,300 sex offenders.

The criminal-justice-reform committee is scheduled to deliver its report to the General Assembly by August 2016.

"I've offered to provide testimony and statistics to the legislature to return discretion to the courts," Donnelly said. "And I'll get 15 other judges to join me."

He argues that courts have access to psychiatrists who are experts on assessing sex offenders and their proclivity for recidivism.

New legislation that did not restrict judicial discretion could allow those risk assessments to be argued in open court, Donnelly said. "Then the process is transparent and evidence-based."

Judicial discretion returns accountability and justice to the process without compromising public safety.

The committee should recommend that such legislation be enacted.

And the federal government -- and Congress, if needed -- should make sure Ohio's federal criminal justice funding is not docked because of such a common-sense improvement to the state's sex-offender registry.

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