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By AARON SANBORN (firstname.lastname@example.org)
There's a stigma that comes with being classified as a sex offender, [name withheld] of Rochester says.
[name withheld], a registered sex offender, was 18 when she had a sexual encounter with a 15-year-old; [name withheld] describes the contact as consensual.
She was convicted of felonious sexual assault in 1999. She served nine months in the Strafford County House of Corrections and is required to register on the Rochester Police Department's private sex offender list twice each year.
Currently, adults who commit sexual offenses against other adults are kept on a private list at local police departments in New Hampshire. Those who commit offenses against children are placed on a public list. Offenders who normally would be on the public list can be placed on the private list at a judge's discretion.
A victim's age, not the crime's brutality or severity, is the primary measure governing an offender's listing. Both the public and private lists can contain the names of a range of offenders, from those who committed relatively nonviolent offenses to those convicted of brutal sex crimes.
[name withheld] is now a married mother of four who works as a social services advocate. She says the sex offender label continues to cause her problems, noting she was charged in October 2007 with felony-level duty to report for not telling police about a change in job status, which she is required to do as a sex offender.
Her status as a sex offender shows up on her record and has limited her job and housing options and prevented her from chaperoning her children's field trips, she said.
Her offense would be a misdemeanor under current state law, which was changed in 2003, because there was less than a three-year age difference between herself and the victim. She said she can petition to come off the private sex offender list and is looking into doing so.
But [name withheld] says regardless of what happens with her petition, it's time for New Hampshire to change its sex offender law as not all sex offenders are the same, and she and others are being lumped in with more serious offenders.
"People like myself are bulked in with people who rape babies and pedophiles and that's not OK," she said.
Some changes are on the way. Federal legislation, titled the Adam Walsh Child Protection Act, became law in 2006. It calls for a tiered federal sex offender classification system and gives states until July 29 to instate similar systems. An offender's tier would govern whether they appear on a public registry.
The New Hampshire House of Representatives has passed House Bill 1640, which would create a state tier system, provide more information to the public and help prevent sex offenders from moving to the state to take advantage of its private list, lawmakers say.
The bill passed the House last month and was sent to the Senate, where the Judiciary Committee discussed it Tuesday.
The bill, however, wouldn't necessarily affect situation's like [name withheld]'s, which fall under the state's statutory rape law.
But at least one lawmaker hopes to change that.
While HB 1640 was being discussed in the House, State Rep. Jennifer Brown (Email), D-Dover, made an unsuccessful bid to exempt from the registry people younger than 21 who had consensual sex with a minor. She said she made her bid after hearing stories from multiple men, now married with families, who engaged in consensual sex while under 21.
"They all have the same issue; all of the guys were under 21 when they committed their crimes, and they all were deceived by the girls about their ages," Brown said. "Some of their wives told me their husbands carded them when they met because they were scared."
Brown said she's hearing more of these stories around the state and said it's unfortunate the new legislation does little to deal with the situation.
"The registry is not supposed to be a punishment," she said. "These guys aren't dangerous, and people get confused when they look at the registry and make that assumption. Who doesn't make one mistake before they're 21?"
The issue was argued again at the Senate hearing, Brown said, adding that while no resolution was made, the senators did listen, and she's confident changes still could be made.
State Rep. Gene Charron (Email), R&D-Chester, a house bill co-sponsor, said even if it passes as is, it still would be possible to make changes in the future.
"I can see in the future that we're probably going to look at this further and refine it," he said. "Especially with younger folks who engage in consensual sex."
A tier system let the state look at sex offenders individually and their chances of rehabilitation or repeating the offense, said Amanda Grady of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
"It's a more comprehensive look at sex offenders," Grady said.
Grady and the coalition worked with New Hampshire State Trooper Jill Rockey to draft the current bill.
"One of the biggest reasons for (the Walsh Protection Act) is that states don't have uniform registries," Grady said. "Sex offenders are smart and know that adults who offend against adults aren't on the (public) list (in New Hampshire), and offenders who come to New Hampshire know that."
Under the legislation, Tier 1 would include offenses like sexual touching and violation of privacy, while Tier 2 would be used for crimes of nonviolent penetration and sex abuse, including felonious sexual assault or computer pornography or those convicted of any two registerable offenses. This can include those convicted of more than one charge at a single trial.
Tier 3 is for the most serious offenders and includes charges of aggravated felonious sexual assault, kidnapping, capital murder or those convicted of three or more registerable offenses.
"It ensures information about serial rapists who prey on adult victims is available to the public," Grady said. "A tier system really gives more information to the public and is one tool families can use."
The state's public list also would be expanded to include all of an offender's criminal convictions and the offender's probation or parole status. It would include the offender's registration status, whether the offender is compliant, has absconded or whether there is a warrant for the offender's non-compliance.
Dover Police Chief Anthony Colarusso said he favors any legislation that could provide more information to the public and protect children.
"It's important to do everything we can do to protect children's safety," he said. "I think it does need clarification; I hear a lot of comments from people about those who commit a consensual offense being lumped in with other offenders who prey on children. There's certainly something to be said for using a tier system to separate them and put the focus on higher offenders."
He added that he also likes the idea of the names of offenders who offend against adults being added to the public list, saying the public has a right to know if an offender committed a violent sex crime against another adult.
It's unknown if a change to the tier system would affect Dover's sex offender ordinance, which bars offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a school or day-care center.
"If the state changes the law substantially where we feel we need to change the ordinance, we'll do so, but that doesn't include eliminating it," Colarusso said.
The ordinance is at the center of a lawsuit against the city filed by the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. The suit, filed on behalf of sex offender [name withheld], claims the ordinance is unconstitutional.
Charron said he doesn't like ordinances like Dover's because it sends sex offenders "underground," which he says can be just as dangerous as having sex offenders living a certain distance from schools or certain areas.
"I'd rather know where they are," he said. "You have a lot of people afraid for kids, and I fully comprehend that, but I don't want people hiding."
[name withheld] was charged in November with failure to register as a sex offender for not reporting to local authorities about his change in address. He also was charged with that same offense in Portsmouth.
Dover also charged him with being in violation of the city code for living too close to My School, a preschool and kindergarten at 118 Locust St.