December 14, 2009

Coalition: Focus Mich. sex offender registry on risk

12-14-2009 Michigan:

Coalition members point out that Michigan has highest ratio of citizens on state sex offender registry in the nation

LANSING — About once a month, a group of Michigan citizens sit around a table in one of the state Capitol’s ornate committee rooms and plot their uphill revolt.

They probably wouldn’t describe it that way, but the members of the Coalition for a Useful Registry’s professional advisory board do acknowledge they don’t often end up on the winning side of legislative or judicial skirmishes over Michigan’s growing sex offender registry.

But at the group’s Dec. 2 meeting, with members seated around highly polished wooden tables, coalition members — including those with family on the registry — discussed rare “victories” at the legislature and state appeals court, and reviewed a looming deadline to comply with new federal mandates.

Coalition members are united in the view that Michigan has too many people on the sex offender registry who, they argue, aren’t a threat to anyone and don’t merit the stigma of extended punishment on the registry.

With over 45,100 names and faces on the registry of convicted sex offenders –- and even some whose records are conviction-free –- Michigan holds the eyebrow-raising distinction of having the highest ratio of its citizens on a state sex offender registry.

According to an analysis earlier this year by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, for every 100,000 Michiganders, 472 are on the registry. That’s more than California (319), Florida (281), New York (148) or Illinois (158) – or any state.

“We’re trying to put a face on this,” said Lynn D’Orio, a defense attorney and member of the advisory board. “That’s why the coalition exists.”

Nine years ago when the coalition was formed, it was mostly driven by family members of registrants who knew first-hand the humiliation and lasting negative consequences of being on the list.

“We just weren’t getting very far,” said Shelli Weisberg, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and also a board member. “We eventually decided if we put together other professionals who could represent the same views, but back them up with their own professional credibility and their research, that we might have more of a presence.”

Today, the coalition’s professional advisory board counts social workers, juvenile case workers, attorneys and even a former prosecutor as members.

By reviewing legislation and educating state lawmakers, the board hopes to “help convince legislators that the registry needed to be, at least, reformed,” Weisberg said. “We at least need to be logical about how it’s working.”

The group has developed materials including a PowerPoint presentation that spell out proposed reforms to the registry, like most of all, moving away from a strictly conviction-based method of determining 25-year or life on the registry, and toward a risk-based system instead.

The coalition has also hosted education forums specifically for legislators.

“There’s a big interest in the registry,” Weisberg added, noting that the last forum for legislators attracted over 20 state lawmakers. “We’re very encouraged with the interest.”

Since the registry was established in 1994, and went online in 1999, the registry has added photos and been made searchable by ZIP code. Those and other enhancements have been aimed, in large part, at helping concerned residents keep an eye on Michigan’s tens of thousands of convicted sex offenders.

Motivation fueled by regret, sense of injustice
At least one of those offenders has become an active member of the coalition.

His name isn’t John, but he attended the December meeting just as he’s attended many meetings of the coalition. He spoke to Michigan Messenger on the condition his real name not be published for fear of further harassment.

“I’m the only active one who sticks his neck out,” John said with a heavy sigh. “I came to a point in my life where it was either do or die.”

He means that literally. He said his 1997 conviction on a fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct charge — the least serious sex crime Michigan has on the books — and the new reality of life on the online registry drove him to consider suicide.

His offense was committed in 1997 shortly after he arrived at a late-night Oakland County party, and met a girl there.

“I ended up making out with her and feeling her up,” John, then 28, said in an interview. “The party ended up getting broken up by police after a fight and three months later the cops came through my door and asked if I met this girl.” John said at first he didn’t recall the girl’s name, but he answered the questions truthfully. He admits he made a mistake.

“She turned out to be 14 years old,” he said. It was two years later before he pleaded guilty to what he thought was a low-level charge, a decision he describes as a huge error in judgment a decade later.

“I still remember the preliminary trial — the girl thinks everything is a joke. She’s laughing on the stand,” John said. He then recalled a few more details from the night of the party: “It was a school night. She’s drinking a Southern Comfort and coke, and she’s smoking cigarettes and pot. And she doesn’t think it’s a big deal at all.”

Clothes never came off, and the girl’s parents never got involved in the case. But after completing his probation, John realized the real punishment — 25 years on the sex offender registry — was only then kicking in.

“Basically pleading to that charge has ended my life — having a family, having kids, or a career path,” he said, mentioning the many times he’s been turned down for jobs.

Today John is self-employed, but constantly worried contracts could fall through due to his notoriety as a registrant.

“Anything I had wanted to do has come to a halt,” he added. “I’ve stopped dreaming.”

Pushing for reform

But as part of the coalition, he’s trying to make the case to anyone who will listen — especially legislators — that putting people like him on the list for a quarter century is a punishment that doesn’t fit the crime.

In Lansing, there are probably few causes more unpopular with lawmakers than anything perceived to endanger kids’ safety. But coalition members argue strenuously that’s not what they seek. One reform they advocate is mandating risk assessments to determine if an offender really represents such a threat to the community that he or she merits 25 years on the registry.

Or allowing a process by which individuals can petition to be removed from the registry.

But in the absence of playing offense on legislation the coalition would like to see enacted, the group often finds itself playing defense on initiatives it considers a step backwards.

Weisberg cited last month’s Michigan House Health Policy Committee hearing on a proposal to permanently revoke the state license of any healthcare professional who’s convicted of criminal sexual conduct — including dietitians, pharmacists, and even veterinarian technicians — as a rare victory.

The committee hearing took place on Nov. 17. But a vote on the proposal — inspired by the well-publicized case of a Farmington Hills dentist who drugged and raped one of his patients yet was still allowed to resume his practice after serving one year in jail — didn’t happen.

“That we were successful in stopping that bill was something we just don’t experience very often because it’s really easy to use the sex offenders as a kind of battering ram,” Weisberg said. “That’s why we were very pleased with our success with that bill, but it could still come back.”

That’s a sentiment more than echoed by state Rep. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), one of the sponsors of the proposal. He said the vote was simply postponed.

Asked if there’s a risk of using one sensational crime as a launching pad for legislation, Jones told Michigan Messenger there’s many more similar cases — and strongly defends his proposal.

“It’s just sickening, sickening that this dentist was able to get his license back,” he said. “And there are many other cases. There have been doctors and chiropractors where they’ve raped a patient,” said Jones, who once served as Eaton County sheriff.

But citing the nearly 30 health care professions that require the state license — roughly 400,000 jobs in the state — Weisberg argues that many low-risk offenders would unnecessarily get kicked out of work if the proposal ultimately passes. “It would negatively affect a lot of people,” she said.

Beyond legislation, Weisberg invoked last month’s Michigan Court of Appeals ruling that being listed on the sex offender registry can amount to cruel and unusual punishment for underage offenders, and how victories in court can help convince lawmakers that reforms are in order.

“After the DiPiazza case came down, we had many more legislators say, ‘OK, if the courts are saying this, now we can see that maybe it’s time for us to make some changes.’”

One reform she’d like to pursue is to figure out a way for sex offenders who were convicted between the ages of 17 and 20 — and in many cases have had their records wiped clean through their legal designation as “youthful trainees” — to be able to get removed from the registry.

But the coalition has yet to find a sponsor willing to introduce a bill.

At the coalition’s December meeting, staffers for two state lawmakers attended the meeting — but then were very coy afterwards explaining what they were trying to achieve by taking part.

“It’s not necessarily anything he’s looking at,” explained Andy Mutavdzija, legislative director for Rep. Bert Johnson (D-Detroit), who attended along with one other staffer from the office. “We were there to mostly be educated and enlightened on what the group was trying to aim at.”

A staffer for Rep. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), was also at the meeting. Since then, several messages left with Warren’s office seeking comment for this story have not been returned.

Getting in line with new federal requirements

That’s surprising since coalition members like Weisberg praise Warren for her past support, and her pledge to lead the effort to make sure Michigan complies with the federal Adam Walsh Act, a law that requires states to enhance and tweak their sex offender registries.

The deadline for compliance is April of next year, and non-compliance could mean the loss of approximately $6 million in federal funds.

Weisberg described the new federal mandates that come with the Adam Walsh Act as “a mixed bag.”

She noted that while for the first time, Michigan will have to have a petitioning process for registrants to be removed from the sex offender registry, compliance with the federal law will also force juvenile offenders to be on the public registry beginning at age 14.

Currently, Michigan law allows juveniles to be on the state’s private registry — accessible mainly to just law enforcement — until they turn 18.

John, on the other hand, has been focused on what he describes as the new “information intrusion” that compliance with the Adam Walsh Act will compel.

In addition to the current registry requirements, Adam Walsh will require that registrants regularly submit where they’re living, working or attending school, license plate numbers for any vehicle they might be driving, as well as all phone numbers and email addresses they’re using — or face further penalties.

Going forward, fingerprints and a DNA sample will also be required.

“If the Adam Walsh Act passes as it sits right now, what really scares me is how many people will find that a reason to just end it,” John said bluntly. “They would just give up.”

About himself, he’s seen some changes — for the worse — close up: “I love kids, I really did. Now, I obviously shy away from them.”

The ACLU’s Weisberg emphasized that the goals of the coalition and law enforcement aren’t that far apart.

“We also believe like they do that public safety is paramount,” she said. As for her wish-list of reform, she embraces a new focus on those sex offenders who truly pose a threat.

“I would want the registry tiered by risk as opposed to crime such that the low risk is not publicly available and to have a meaningful and streamlined process to be removed from the registry after five years,” she added.

For John, he’s not currently eligible to be removed from the registry until 2024, a form of extended punishment he’s mostly numb to these days. But not entirely.

At the end of a recent interview, he posed a question to himself.

“If I had the choice of living on the registry for 25 years or dying in my sleep,” he said, “I hope I die in my sleep.” ..Source.. David Alire Garcia

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