|Sen. Dick Sears|
Several senators want to inform communities about where registered sex offenders live.
Introduced by a pair of Democratic lawmakers from the Northeast Kingdom, S.80, requires that the state’s public safety or corrections department notify communities of the presence of a sex offender within five days.
Under the proposal, if the offender becomes a Vermont resident or changes his or her address, the Vermont Department of Public Safety will tell communities. If the offender is released from prison or supervision, the corrections department will give public notice.
Currently local law enforcement bodies, and the two departments, can choose whether to tell communities about nearby sex offenders. This legislation would leave them no choice.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the Senate Judiciary committee, told VTDigger that he isn't sure the mandate is necessary, since local law enforcement already regularly informs the public when particularly dangerous convicts are around.
“The current law provides the ability for law enforcement to notify when they think such notification would be beneficial,” said Sears. “And I think that’s a judgment call that both departments need to make.”
A person’s sex offender status is public information, which can be looked up online at the state’s Sex Offender Registry, maintained by the Vermont Criminal Information Center.
According to the center’s director Jeffrey Wallin, there are about 1,436 registered sex offenders in the state, with 1,008 listed online. The number of sexual offenders in recent years hasn't risen or dropped sharply, Wallin told lawmakers.
But the database the state maintains has also faced sharp criticism in past years, with a June 2010 report from the state auditor noting: “With respect to the reliability of the SOR [Sex Offender Registry] data, we found a sizeable number of serious errors.”
As a result, a law passed in 2009 won’t take effect until there’s a favorable review of the registry, done by the state auditor and approved by a joint legislative committee.
The 2009 law, Act 58, would post an offender’s street address online, if the offender is high risk, hasn't complied with treatment, is wanted for arrest, has abused a child under 13-years-old, and has had his address listed online in another jurisdiction.
Sears says the solution is to wait for a favorable audit from the state auditor, which he argues would make this legislation unnecessary. The center has revamped and improved the registry over several months since that critical report, with new state auditor Doug Hoffer planning to start an audit of the new system in late spring 2013.
“I think the problem that S.80 asks us to address would be solved once the addresses are on the internet,” said Sears. “I think our number one goal right now ought to be get a positive performance review…and then let the 2009 law take effect.”
“Once that takes effect, I’m not sure that we have a problem in terms of notification. And people who might have a specific problem should probably contact the state police or their local police about why they weren't notified of a particularly high-risk offender moving into their neighborhood.”
But advocates and committee members also want to do justice to former convicts trying to reintegrate into society, and those wrongfully listed on the registry.
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, raised questions about how difficult it is for offenders to remove themselves from the database. Currently, those listed have to go through the courts or the corrections department to scrub themselves from the registry.
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, added that she’d heard complaints from constituents who believe they’re on the database for “things that are just ludicrous.”
Right now, only those convicted of a sexual crime show up on the database, which was established in 1996. Their name, photo, town of residence, probation status and detailed criminal record are all listed, with an indication of whether they’re considered a “high risk” offender.
Advocate Gordon Bock, chair of the prisoner’s rights group CURE Vermont (Facebook, National), said that one danger here is worsening an already harmful social stigma about former sex offenders.
He said there needs to be a balance between a public need and desire for safety, and “turning a particular type of former prisoner into what essentially amounts to being a pariah.”
He hopes that lawmakers will be “careful and circumspect before they make it even more difficult for people who have committed crimes of a sexual nature — and I’m talking about those who have rehabilitated, and want to stay on the right track — to make it even harder for them to secure a place to live, to get a job, to exist in the community.”