By Rex Santus
COLUMBUS - This July, Ohio will begin tracking arsonists through a new registry similar to the one used to track sex offenders.
- I just don't understand the need for these registries. Don't police already have access to all criminal records? If so, then why is this needed? And why is it going to be offline and not online like the online shaming hit-list for ex-sex offenders (see below)?
The law, passed by the Ohio General Assembly late last year without much attention, will require people convicted of arson-related offenses to register at their local sheriff's office each year for at least 10 years. Those who fail to register will be charged with a felony.
- Why not for life like ex-sex offenders?
Supporters tout the measure as another tool for law enforcement in investigating the difficult-to-solve crime. But critics argue the registry will be burdensome, and that arson is not a significant enough problem in Ohio to warrant an official registry, especially one that is kept from the public's eyes.
"There is a huge problem with arson in Ohio," said Sen. Tim Schaffer, a Lancaster Republican who sponsored the bill. With the registry, law enforcement "can look up who all the convicted arsonists are, who have done their time and are back at home or back in the community. Chances are good that it's a repeat offender, and you already know who . . . it might be."
- Like we said above, why can't they just examine criminal records? Why the need to spend more tax payer money for another list when the data is, or should be, already available?
Last year, 8,377 "suspicious" fires were reported, which resulted in more than $160 million in estimated damages, according to the Ohio State Fire Marshal.
There are approximately 500 convictions of arson each year, according to the Buckeye State Sheriff's Association.
"I don't know where it came from," Amy Borror, spokeswoman for the Ohio Public Defender's Office, said of the new law. "I don't know why we have it."
- The same reason we have the online sex offender list, to exploit the issue and fear to help a politician look "tough" on crime.
Borror said the law will put unnecessary work on the shoulders of local sheriffs, who will be tasked with compiling the list in addition to the sex-offender registry they already put together.
"The sex-offender registry has been around for a long time, and the research that's out there says that it has no positive impact on the public safety," Borror said. "And, if anything, it might have a negative impact on public safety because it creates this administrative burden."
Nick Worner, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, said a registry for arson seems arbitrary and will do little to solve crimes because "rounding up the usual suspects" is rarely an effective investigation method.
"Are we eventually going to have a registry for everything?" Worner said. "Will we have a shoplifters registry, where if something comes up missing at JC Penney's, they round up everybody who has ever been convicted of shoplifting and start there?"
- I am sure it will eventually come down to that, but hey, why not? If an online registry is okay for ex-sex offenders, then it should be done for all. We should just have one online registry, and a way to look up people by crime type. It's not that difficult.
"Generally, the problem with this sort of thing is that it's supposed to start with the gathering of evidence in the investigation and then the detaining of people based on suspicion. This kind of does that backwards."
Worner also expressed concern that money needed to maintain the registry may end up coming from taxpayers' pockets. He said fees paid by offenders are supposed to finance registries, but that does not necessarily mean they will make the payments. Another big concern, Worner said, is that unlike the sex-offender registry, this one is not publicly available, meaning only law enforcement has access to the list.
- As it should be, just like the sex offender registry.
"I think we would argue there is an issue with gathering this information in the first place, but it's an important question to ask: If you have to exempt the information from public-records law, should you be gathering it in the first place?" Worner asked.
Borror noted that the sex-offender registry has errors and inconsistencies, and the arsonist list will remain unchecked by the public, leaving many potential problems unaddressed.
Schaffer said the list will not be public because arson-related crimes are very different from sex offenses, and he has received no demand to make the list public.
- Of course not, because the media and politicians haven't pushed that. If they whipped up fear like they do with ex-sex offenders, then I'm sure the public would be all for it.
"I haven't had one member of the public ask me for access to this law-enforcement tool," Schaffer said. "It's a law-enforcement tool. It's for the same reason that you can't access the state of Ohio's database for people's license plates. What's the purpose?"
He said providing the registry to the public is not off the table, but Ohioans would have to express a desire to see the list.
Robert Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriff's Association, said he was pleased with the new law, which he said should provide new techniques for arson investigators.
Cornwell said his organization approves of the registry because police should know the whereabouts of convicted arsonists. He did not estimate a much-larger workload for sheriffs in compiling the registry.
- Wait until you have many registries, then see what kind of workload you have. Eventually nothing will get done because you are maintaining registries.
Michael Duchesne, spokesman for the State Fire Marshal, also expressed support of the registry, saying it will afford law enforcement more options when investigating arson-related crimes.
He said there are enough suspicious fires in Ohio to necessitate the registry.
Worner, with the ACLU, said even if the list is a new tool for law enforcement, it will not prove crimes. Ohioans should worry about the precedent the arson registry may create, he said.
- They should've worried about that with the sex offender registry.
"You have to look down the road," Worner said. "If there's a registry here and a registry here, what's next?"