Proposed sex offender registry changes would be based on risk

Eight years after Ohio tightened its sex offender registration laws to comply with federal standards, a state committee is considering changes that could make it easier for sex offenders to get off the registry if they no longer are a threat to society.

Among other changes to Ohio’s criminal laws, the Criminal Justice Recodification Committee will vote Thursday on a set of changes already unanimously approved by the state’s Sentencing Commission, which is made up of county sheriffs, prosecutors, judges, victims advocates and lawmakers.

The proposals include going from an offense-based classification system, in which offenders are assigned to a tier and given registration requirements based on the criminal offense they committed, to a more risk-based system in which judges would have more discretion.

The proposed changes would also allow sex offenders the ability to petition for a change of status after years of good behavior or due to a change in their risk level due to advanced age or illness.

Continued registration requirements for elderly or disabled offenders was one issue this newspaper addressed in an October investigation into sex offenders living in nursing homes.

The investigation found that while some individuals did pose a threat to vulnerable nursing home residents, there were also cases of ex-offenders in need of care being turned away from homes because of the stigma of their registration status.

“A lot of the discussion when we initially presented this was, the person who is clearly no longer a risk,” said Blaise Katter, staff attorney for the committee.

Medical conditions and advanced age would be key components judges could look at when considering whether to release someone from registration requirements, he said.

“We’re trying to bring in some common-sense changes that will hopefully maintain, of course, the community safety, but address other issues to make the registry effective,” said Jill Beeler, appellate services director for the Ohio Public Defenders Office and a member of the committee work group that helped draft the proposed changes.

Hybrid system

Currently, judges sentencing convicted sex offenders must place them into one of three tiers based on their crimes. And based on the tier they are assigned, individuals must register their address with their local sheriff for 15 years to life.

Some states, including Minnesota and Massachusetts, have similar tiered systems, but use risk assessments to determine in which tier an individual belongs. Lower tiers carry fewer restrictions and are reserved for offenders who are not likely to reoffend.

Beeler said the system being proposed in Ohio is a hybrid of the two approaches. The recommended changes will go to the state legislature, where a bill would need to be drafted and approved to make them law.

The current tier system would be retained. Tier I requires annual registration for 15 years; Tier II is semi-annual registration for 25 years, and Tier III is quarterly registration for life.

Tier III offenders would still get mandatory registration for life, but there would be fewer charges labeled Tier III: aggravated rape or rape of a child; kidnapping a minor to engage in sexual activity; aggravated murder or murder with sexual motivation; and repeat offenses if already a Tier II or Tier III classification.

For lower-tier offenses, a judge would have discretion whether to impose registration.

Once placed into a tier, registered sex offenders would have the ability to petition to deregister or move down a tier after a specified number of years — between 5 and 15 depending on the tier. If these changes are adopted, those convicted under previous versions of the law would also have the ability to petition for a change of status.

“I think it’s a good compromise,” said Barb Wright, a member of the Ohio chapter of Reform Sex Offender Laws. The group has seen the recommended changes and approves of them, she said.

“I think in some areas it does not go far enough and we’ve expressed our concerns,” Wright said.

She’d like to see more retroactive applications so that someone recently convicted under the current law would have recourse to get their registration status changed.

Another recommendation of the committee is to remove all residency restrictions, such as barring sex offenders from living near schools.

“Empirical data shows there is no evidence to support that residency restrictions impact public safety; conversely, restrictions place significant burdens on offender’s ability to establish a support network and housing in order to become a productive member of society,” according to a summary of the proposed changes provided to this newspaper.

The committee is also calling for the implementation of a statewide offender database system “to replace the patchwork county-by-county system that has significant flaws and gaps.”

This newspaper’s investigation found inconsistencies in the amount of information available to the public on the registry pages maintained by county sheriffs. Some nursing homes said the lack of information made it difficult for them to assess if someone applying to live there posed a risk.

State Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, who previously said he liked the idea of a more risk-based system and would like to see more detailed information available on the public registry, is eager to dig into the committee’s recommendations.

“There are some encouraging aspects such as judges having more discretion and looking at risk,” he said. “There’s a lot of detail that’s going to require a lot of vetting.”

Funds at stake?

When the Adam Walsh Act went into effect in 2006, states were given three years to update their laws to be in compliance.

Any states that missed that deadline and continued to be out of compliance faced an annual 10 percent cut in federal Justice Assistance Grants, used to fund local courts, crime labs, jails and other law enforcement programs.

Ohio was the first state to come into compliance with Senate Bill 10 in 2008. It moved the state from a risk-based system of classifying sex offenders to the current tier system that is based exclusively on the offense committed.

“I think there was a belief that many states would follow because there was a real motivation to move toward this offense-based system,” Beeler said.

Instead, Ohio is one of only 17 states currently in compliance with the federal law.

Beeler said there is a recognition by the committee that the proposed changes could take Ohio out of compliance and lead to a loss of federal funding.

“We feel like the cost of our current registration system is more than the dollars we would lose,” she said.

The money withheld from states that are not in compliance is split between the states that are, and paid in the form of bonus grants.

In fiscal year 2015, Ohio law enforcement agencies received a total allocation of $7.8 million in JAG money, plus a $106,000 bonus.

A loss of 10 percent plus the bonus would be about $880,000 annually, slightly more than the state spends each year on its share of 88 county sheriffs’ salaries.

“Those grants have actually been reduced over time,” Beeler said. “So 10 percent of that grant money is much less than the cost that we’re spending on our current system.”