Sunday, August 21, 2011

Times Daily: Professors warn about new sex offenders law

The Times Daily has written a few good articles on the subject of sex offenders, and this article is no exception. The only criticism I have is they did not mention the state felt pressured to pass a quick law due to the threat of losing 10% of Byrne/ JAG funds if they failed to comply with SORNA.

Professors warn about new sex offenders law

By M.J. Ellington  Montgomery Bureau 

Published: Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 3:30 a.m.

Last Modified: Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 10:38 p.m.

MONTGOMERY - Alabama's new sex offender reporting law is designed to increase oversight of people who commit sex crimes, but two researchers warn if the laws are too restrictive, they may backfire and result in more, not fewer, sex offenses.
J.J. Prescott, University of Michigan Law School professor, and Jonah E. Rockoff, Columbia University Business School professor, tracked sexual offender data after states established sex offender registries. The duo did not study Alabama's new law but analyzed similar laws in other states for their report.
Rockoff said states passed stricter laws hoping to reduce the number of repeat sex offenses and make the public feel safer. But in a study encompassing several years, he and Prescott found that such requirements make “sticking to the straight and narrow much less attractive than just throwing up your hands and returning to crime,” Prescott said.
He considers the finding significant since the purpose of most of laws is to cut down on repeat crimes.
“Put differently, living life as a convicted sex offender can be pretty miserable under these laws,” Prescott said.
The effect is that the threat of going back to prison for committing new offenses may seem less objectionable than living on the outside under very restrictive rules, he said.
“... Some of these requirements, particularly the ones that involve informing the public about the identity and whereabouts of sex offenders, are so costly to offenders that they become more, rather than less, likely to commit more offenses,” Prescott said.
While Prescott's study did not track Alabama sex offenders, he said it will be extremely difficult for some sex offenders to comply with the new law's requirements. He used Alabama's requirements for homeless sex offenders as an example.
Homeless offenders in Alabama with no fixed residence must report where they are living and pay a $10 registry update fee every seven days. If they do not, they will be sent back prison under the new law, he said.
If the $10 fee stops the offender from reporting because he doesn't have the money and can't get a job because he is an offender, the state will ultimately pay more to keep him in prison. Alabama's cost per inmate per year is about $22,000.
Alabama's new law, based on a bill by Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has far-reaching registration and reporting requirements for convicted sex offenders.
“Eighty percent of it was making sure we're in compliance with the” Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, Ward said.
The act, in part, establishes new crimes or expands federal jurisdiction over existing crimes in nine areas, including child abuse, kidnapping, obscenity, child pornography, use of the Internet to distribute obscenity or drugs and record-keeping. It also established new offenses and penalties for failure to register as a sex offender.
The state Department of Public Safety and the Alabama District Attorneys Association asked Ward to sponsor the bill, he said.
Local sheriff's offices and police departments are in training to learn how to enforce the law and many expect to devote at least one person on their staff to keep up with reporting changes. The law does not allocate state funding for enforcement.
Some individuals on the House and Senate committees who took up Ward's bill and a similar House bill by Rep. Blaine Galliher, R-Gadsden, said there was little controversy or discussion about the legislation.
“I was for it. There really wasn't a lot of opposition,” said Rep. Greg Burdine,
Rep Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, who is an assistant Tuscaloosa city attorney, raised questions in the House Judiciary Committee about the stringent reporting requirements.
In previous years, sex offender legislation, particularly limitations on where offenders can live, prompted concerns from legislators.
Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, was a House Judiciary Committee member from 2006-10.
She said if the state continues to lengthen the distance between a sex offender's address and community parks, day care facilities or schools, pretty soon there won't be anywhere left for offenders to live.
Jess Brown, political scientist professor at Athens State University, said the thought of sex offenses brings out strong emotions in the public, which often applauds tougher offender restrictions.
Politicians who pass the laws can go home and tell voters they are tough on crime, and few people will voice objections even if they believe the laws may be a mistake, he said.
“There is a belief in America, especially in Alabama, that you can solve a problem with tough-on-crime laws,” Brown said. “But if you continue to have harsh punishment without the likelihood of effective enforcement, then compliance goes down.”
Politics are always a part of the picture with punitive legislation, including three-strikes-and-you're-out laws that also crowd prisons with people who return on technicalities, he said.
“No prosecutor or politician is going to stand up and say we made a mistake with this law,” Brown said. “He doesn't want his opponents to use that against him in the next election.”
M.J. Ellington is the Montgomery Bureau chief for the TimesDaily. She can be reached at

Friday, August 12, 2011

Alabama's final version of the new SORNA law... all 100 pages of it

After seeing the new law I can see why there was some confusion in the media. While HB 378 got lots of attention, a similar bill, SB 296, was signed by the Governor and this is the law that passed in July 2011. Well, if you have a whole day to read it, knock yourself out. I will have my own analysis up soon. Until then, here is the link to the new law, all 100 pages of it.

I recently updated my Adam Walsh Act page on my main site at once Fallen. Feel free to check it out:

Monday, August 1, 2011

Alabama did not learn from Ohio's bad example

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." -- George Santayana, The Life of Reason (1905-06)

Many people in Alabama are panicking over the revised Alabama SORNA law (which brought the state into Adam Walsh Act federal compliance) which took effect July 1, 2011, which has been covered here over the past few months. Alabama needed only look at recent history with Ohio's battle over the AWA (known in Ohio as SB 10) to see why the law was such a bad idea.

A recent editorial in the Columbus Dispatch explains it quite well (no surprise, I was one of the critics):

Ohio sex offender registry a mess

Supreme Court has twice ruled it unconstitutional

By  David Eggert
The Columbus Dispatch Sunday July 31, 2011 9:15 AM

Four years after Ohio hurried to comply with a federal law by retroactively toughening the reporting and registration requirements for sex offenders, the state could be forgiven for having buyer’s remorse.

Ohio’s law has twice been declared unconstitutional, which opponents had warned would happen.

Thousands of sex offenders have been or will be reclassified — two times.

The funding the state stood to lose if it did not conform — typically hundreds of thousands of dollars a year — has been offset by millions spent complying with the law and defending against thousands of lawsuits.

“It was a colossal boondoggle,” said Jay Macke, an assistant state public defender.

And the issue remains unsettled, despite the Ohio Supreme Court striking down more of the law this month in a decision that could have implications across the country.

In 2007, Ohio adopted the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, part of a broader 2006 federal law named for Adam Walsh, a 6-year-old Florida boy who was abducted and killed in 1981.

It won unanimous approval from the legislature partly because there was a price for not going along – a 10 percent reduction in federal law-enforcement assistance grants. The federal government in 2009 applauded Ohio for becoming the first state to “substantially implement” the sex-offender law, which created a national system for the registration of sex offenders.

Ohio offenders were reclassified into three tiers based on the crime, no longer considering their likelihood of reoffending. They had to register for longer periods and report to authorities more often, and some once considered lower-level offenders were added to the registry for life instead of a decade.

The changes were applied retroactively to 26,000 sex offenders who committed their crimes before the law went into effect in 2008, something critics at the time said was blatantly unconstitutional.

It turns out they were right.

While the Ohio Supreme Court initially declined to step in and block the law from taking effect, it struck down portions of the law in 2010, reverting 19,000 offenders back to their status under Ohio’s previous sex-offender statute, Megan’s Law.

Then, about 7,000 offenders benefited from a major ruling this month that said the law could not change their punishment after the fact.

“When we name laws after people, it’s usually a mistake,” said Jeff Gamso, former legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio who has fought Ohio’s retroactive sex-offender law. “ They’re driven by immediate passions and not by a whole lot of attention to what makes sense.”

Ohio, he said, has a lot of work ahead in deciding how to handle the fallout from the latest Supreme Court decision.

It is a crime for sex offenders to fail to register and verify their whereabouts. But some still listed on the registry would have come off by now under Megan’s Law, or possibly would not have had to register in the first place.

What if they were jailed for not registering or checking in with authorities under an unconstitutional law?

“The years of confusion continue,” Gamso said.

Attorney General Mike DeWine has another concern — making sure sex offenders affected by the latest ruling still have to sign up for the registry. His office began meeting with lawmakers last week to discuss their status.

DeWine said he is not sure yet whether new legislation will be needed.

“The court has told us what we can’t do, which we accept,” he said. “What we need to make sure is if they are still covered under the previous law.

“We have a duty to look at this and make sure we get it right.”

Sex offender George Williams of Cincinnati — one of thousands to challenge Ohio’s law — won the latest legal fight in the state’s high court. Now 23, he pleaded guilty to having unlawful sexual conduct with his 14-year-old girlfriend when he was 19.

For critics, Williams is the poster child for what is wrong with the sex-offender registry.

At the time of the crime, he likely would have been labeled a sexually oriented offender and been required to register for 10 years. However, under the Adam Walsh Act provisions, he was subject to 25 years.

Williams was sentenced to two months of jail and three years of community control, similar to probation. He and the victim had a child together, and she and her family wanted him to have contact with the child.

“If I have some predator living near me, I’d like to know that. But does this really get it done?” asked Franklin County Common Pleas Judge David E. Cain.

He questioned whether the public is served by a registry with tens of thousands of offenders on it. Tougher reporting requirements and more restrictions on where offenders can live make it more likely they will not comply and leave their whereabouts unknown, he said.

“I’m not sure it ever had a chance of doing what (legislators) intended, to make the state safer from sexual offenders,” Cain said. “They have the right intentions, but they don’t always think them out too well.”