Panel mulls changes to sex offender registry
Parents who check the state sex offender registry prior to allowing their children to knock on strangers' doors and ask for candy this Halloween may be under the misconception that every person listed on the registry poses a grave danger to public safety.
That's not true, according to members of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, who say a one-size-fits-all approach to registration of sex offenders is not in the best interest of public safety. The registry, which contains the names and addresses of more than 5,000 people convicted of everything from consensual sex among teenagers to serial child rapists, would shrink significantly under a proposal that could be presented to lawmakers in 2018.
A subcommittee of the sentencing commission, which was directed by the General Assembly in 2015 to review criminal sentencing practices, proposes moving from an offense-based system, in which people are required to register based on the crimes they commit, to a risk-based registry, in which only the identities of those deemed at risk of reoffending would be made public. Those deemed at lower risk would be placed on a registry accessible only to law enforcement agencies.
"We're not trying to make life easier for offenders," said Alex Tsarkov, executive director of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission. "We're trying to focus on public safety."
The commission's Special Committee on Sex Offenders presented its draft proposal at an Oct. 13 meeting in the legislative office building and will reconvene on Nov. 3 to refine the language. The proposal will be presented to the full commission in December and, if approved, will be presented to lawmakers as proposed legislation during the 2018 session.
The plan's proponents say it would enable the lower-level offenders to avoid the obstacles to finding housing and jobs that hamper those on the registry. Those deemed at higher risk would remain on the registry, and more resources could be devoted to treating and monitoring them. Contrary to popular belief, studies in Connecticut and elsewhere have shown that sex offenders are at lower risk of reoffending than most other criminals.
Not all sex crimes included
Every state in the nation has a sex offender registry. Connecticut's was created in 1994 and initially was administered by the Judicial Branch. The state police took over the registry in 1998. The state "grandfathered" those who had been convicted prior to 1998 and required them to register.
The public registry now contains the majority of offenders and is available on the internet and at state and local police departments.
As of earlier this month, 5,039 people were listed on the public registry, including 641 who are incarcerated. Of them, 4,596 were convicted in Connecticut and 793 were convicted in other states. There are 2,694 offenders who are required to register for life and 1,902 who are registered for 10 years.
There are 80 people on a law enforcement-only registry, which is limited to offenders whose victims would be identified if the offender was on the public registry. The police registry generally includes offenders convicted of sexually assaulting a spouse or relative.
The existence of the registry could lead some members of the public to have a false sense of security, since only an estimated 10 percent of sex crimes are reported. The registry also may lead members of the public to conclude that everyone listed is being monitored, according to Tsarkov.
Some registrants are supervised by parole or probation officers, but others are required only to send state police a letter every three months, verifying their address. So many registrants are out of compliance in the state's biggest cities, Tsarkov said, that police don't have the resources to pursue them.
The plan, presented at the Oct. 13 meeting by subcommittee member Robert J. Devlin Jr., a Superior Court judge, would entail creation of a seven-member, paid board of experts appointed by the governor to evaluate every sex offender who is required to register. Tsarkov said there is no estimate yet of the cost of the new program.
The board would classify offenders as low, moderate or high risk of reoffending based on a clinical risk assessment score, the nature and circumstances of the offense and the impact of the crime on the victim and community. Low risk offenders would be placed on the law enforcement registry for 10 years. Those at moderate risk would be required to register for 20 years and those at high risk would have to register for the rest of their lives; these last two groups would be on the public registry.
Retired New Haven public defender Thomas Ullmann, a subcommittee member who has called the current registry "ridiculous" because he says it limits housing and employment opportunities for people who are not at risk of reoffending, said the proposal is not ideal, but is an acceptable compromise that creates a system where most people will not be put on the public registry.
Some committee members opposed any change to the status of those currently on the registry, since victims consider the registry requirement a part of their sentencing. The plan, as proposed, allows them to petition for removal from the public registry to the law-enforcement-only group. Those who were convicted prior to the establishment of the registry in 1998 would be able to seek removal through the courts.
The entire process would include input from victims and their advocates, but subcommittee member Linda J. Cimino, director of the Judicial Branch's Office of Victim Services, said it may be difficult to contact victims for input on removal requests years after convictions, and that she's concerned about what could happen if there is no victim consideration.
"I don't want it to change into a victim-blaming situation," Cimino said. She was critical of some of the proposal's language, which she said appeared not to hold the registered person responsible for the crime.
"There seems to be to be a skewing of the language that makes sex offenders more sympathetic than they should be," she said.
The sentencing commission held a public hearing on the registry and sex offender management in January. Most of the people who spoke or submitted testimony were offenders or their family members who were in favor of reforms that they said would enable them to rebuild their lives.
One victim, who has become a vocal advocate for others who are sexually assaulted, urged the commission to remember the harm that offenders have done as they consider changes. Donna Palomba, who was raped by a masked man who broke into her Waterbury home in 1993, is the founder and president of Jane Doe No More.
"My name is Donna Palomba and I am a survivor of rape," she began her statement to the commission. "I urge you to always remember the victim. And remember the sex offender OFFENDED and committed the crime of sexual violence: child sex abuse, sexual assault, rape. The victim has endured the trauma of this sexual violence which carries a life sentence."
'We don't want retribution'
Several sex offenders who have followed the subcommittee's progress were in the audience on Oct. 13, along with Cindy Prizio of Wilton, executive director of Connecticut For One Standard of Justice. The group is described on its website as a civil rights organization committed to ensuring that persons accused or convicted of sex offenses in Connecticut are treated constitutionally and fairly by the state. The website contains a disclaimer that the group "does not in any way condone sexual activity between adults and children, nor does it condone any sexual activity that would break laws in any state. We do not advocate lowering the age of consent, and we have no affiliation with any group that does condone such activities."
The group believes there should not be a sex offender registry.
Prizio said in a phone interview last week that the public is grossly misinformed about sexual crimes and that the state is perpetuating fear-mongering with the registry, which she said was intended as a law enforcement tool to track child abductors and causes permanent damage to registrants not at risk of reoffending.
She said resources should be put into prevention of sex crimes, citing a poster campaign in Germany that encourages adults having "odd thoughts" about children to call a number and get help without fear of arrest. Victims should be renamed survivors and should be given access to counseling to help them heal, she said.
"What we don't want is the retribution, the public policy based on vengeance," Prizio said. "That's not the legal system. It's not the way our founding forefathers started off."
As for the news outlets that are encouraging parents to check the registry before their kids go trick-or-treating, Prizio said, "The biggest danger to children on Halloween are of them running on streets and getting hit by drivers who are reckless or inconsiderate or driving under the influence."
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