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Should we care that laws against sex offenders in Maine may have gone too far? Even some law-and-order types are now saying yes.
"Lee" was 19, his date 16, and a week after they had sex, she told police she was raped.
He still maintains it was consensual.
"I was scared to death," he said. "I was afraid she was going to get on the stand and lie and I would go to jail for a long time."
When the District Attorney's Office offered him a plea - no contest to gross sexual misconduct - he took it. It was a good deal, his lawyer told him. Eighty days in jail, three years probation. A quick way to put the allegation behind him.
That was in 1988.
In 2007, the state said not so fast.
Changes in Maine law required Lee, a central Maine husband, father and business owner, to suddenly register as a sex offender.
"I spent the night crying," Lee said. "It floored me and I said 'I'm not doing this.'"
But he had to. Lee's profile is online now, one of nearly 2,900 listed in an easily searchable database open to anyone who wants a look. The phrase "gross sexual misconduct" is just below his name, age, home address, work address, physical description and photo.
Lee, who asked that his real name not be used to protect his family, is frustrated by his suddenly public sex offender label. He's humiliated. But most of all, a year-and-a-half after a Canadian man shot and killed two men he found on Maine's online registry, he's scared.
Like other sex offenders from the 1980s and early '90s recently required to register, he's demanding the law change.
The surprise? An array of Maine lawmakers, police and victim advocates agree it should.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have sex offender registries, according to the U.S Department of Justice.
Maine started its registry in 1996, originally listing people convicted of gross sexual assault of a child under 16. Over the years, the state expanded the registry, folding in more crimes and increasing the penalties for offenders who failed to register.
In 2005, the Legislature significantly rolled back the registry's cutoff date, requiring retroactive registration for all sex offenders sentenced from 1982 on. Although the law changed two years ago, some sex offenders from that earlier period - like Lee - only received their notice to register within the last several months. It took the state that long to track people down.
The state this year also placed greater restrictions on registered offenders who committed crimes against children under 14. They're now prohibited from visiting a school, child-care facility, athletic field, park, playground or "other place where children are the primary users."
But as Maine's sex offender laws have steadily grown more stringent since 1996, the state has become caught in a kind of tug-of-war.
One one side: the federal Adam Walsh Act. Passed this year, it mandates greater constraints on sex offenders, requires states to place juvenile offenders on public registries, establishes a tiered registry system based on the crime and requires states to maintain registries online, with detailed information down to the license plate numbers of any car the offender uses. States could lose federal funding if they don't comply.
On the other side: a call to completely overhaul, if not eliminate, sex offender registries as they are now. In September, an international human rights organization issued a 146-page report that concluded registries "may not protect children from sex crimes but do lead to harassment, ostracism and even violence against former offenders." It cited Maine's two sex offender murders as an example.
Also in September, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said Maine's registry might be unconstitutional because its 2005 expansion retroactively increased punishments for people who had already served their sentences. It sent the complaint back to the lower court for further proceedings.
In the middle: Maine.
"There are no easy answers," said state Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, a member of the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee.
'He's been branded'
To meet their registration requirements, sex offenders must regularly present themselves to police, fill out a form, provide a new photo and submit to fingerprinting. They're listed on the registry for 10 years or for a lifetime, depending on their crime. Currently, 78 percent of offenders are on the registry for life.
Lee is on for a lifetime. So is the husband of a central Maine woman who asked to be identified only by her first name, Renee.
Her husband served 30 days in jail for unlawful sexual contact 15 years ago. He learned last spring that he was required to register under the expanded 2005 law.
"He's not a rapist. He's not a pedophile," she said of her husband. "He's a regular person."
Because Renee's husband is on the registry for a crime involving someone under 14, state law bars him from bringing their children to day care or watching their young son play with his hockey team.
Her husband has a master's degree in clinical counseling, but has had trouble finding and keeping a job. Once a company finds out he's on the registry, it doesn't want him.
After the murders of two men on Maine's registry a year-and-a-half ago, Renee and her husband worried about their family's safety. They've thought about getting a guard dog. They've considered leaving the state or changing their children's last names so they can't be identified as the children of a registered sex offender.
Renee likens the registry to wearing a scarlet letter.
"He's been branded," she said. "Murderers don't even have to go through this."
Maine lawmakers, sex offenders, victim advocates and police interviewed for this story agree the state registry needs to be tweaked. Even those who have fought for the strictest punishments now say the registry, in some instances, goes too far.
In 2005, when the Legislature made the registry retroactive to 1982, Rep. Michael Vaughn, R-Durham, told the Sun Journal, "I'm a firm believer in stigma."
He's fought to bar sex offenders from living in certain towns, institute civil commitments for some sex offenders and increase public notification of offenders living in the area. Although none of those bills passed, many of Vaughn's constituents seemed to appreciate the effort.
"I mostly got comments back saying harsh things about what should happen to sex offenders and thanking me for standing up for the women and children," he said. "I believe that is a legitimate and primary function of state government, to - aside from roads - to protect the public from obvious dangers like that."
But after hearing from other constituents - including a Durham-area woman whose husband is on the registry - Vaughn questioned whether registering every sex offender is really a public service.
He doesn't, for example, consider an older teenager who had a relationship with a younger teenager to be a predator. Under current state law, however, that older teen would have to register as a sex offender.
"I'd like to see it revamped," he said.
So would state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, Senate chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee. So would the leaders of Sexual Assault Victims Emergency Services in Farmington and the Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Lewiston. So would Maine State Police Lt. Col. Robert Williams, who has overseen the registry.
"The debate is, how do you do it?" Williams said.
While many people believe Maine's registry needs to be changed, they differ on what those changes should be.
Some, like Renee, want Maine to get rid of the online registry completely or showcase only offenders who present an immediate danger to the community.
Some, like Lee, want the state to stop registering offenders who were convicted or pleaded guilty before Maine's registry existed.
"We didn't know it was a possibility. How could we?" Lee said.
Others, like the executive director of Sexual Assault Victims Emergency Services, would like to see the registry include more information so the public can distinguish between someone who once had a relationship with an underage teenager and someone who is a repeat pedophile.
Still others, like, Williams, the police officer, and legislators Vaughn and Sykes, believe the registry should be redesigned to include some kind of tiered system based on the severity of the crime or the likelihood the offender will re-offend.
"There are degrees," Sykes said. "We need to take a look at this."
The demand for change has grown so strong that the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee will meet Tuesday to start discussing the registry's future. Diamond believes any decision could take months.
In the meantime, Lee said he'll continue to register. He has no choice.
"All of the sudden I have another sentence," he said.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
ME - Shadowed by the past
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