Nebraska eyes impact of changes to sex offender registry
December 2nd, 2011
Lincoln, NE – Two years after Nebraska followed a federal mandate to add more names to the public sex offender registry, some state senators question whether the approach makes the public any safer.
At a recent hearing about the use of the sex offender registry before the State Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, the largest number of people offering testimony to the state senators were the people whose names are listed on the registry.
“I am a convicted sex offender,” began the testimony of Todd Rung of Lincoln. “I was convicted of enticement via computer in 2008. I was one of the first people charged with this crime in the state.”
Rung spent time in jail for attempting to set up a sexual encounter a 15-year-old girl. Until his arrest, he was unaware the person he swapped online messages with was actually a police officer. At the time of his conviction, he knew his photo and current address would be listed on the registry for ten years. By the time he was released from prison in 2010, a new law passed by the Legislature changed the rules. It increased the amount of time Rung would be listed on the State Patrol’s website.
“I was a ten-year, and now I’m a 25-year,” Rung told the senators.
He’s not alone. Dozens of others who previously had been kept on private police lists are now publicly identified as sex offenders. Rung argues the changes made by the state are unfair and unnecessary. Others feel they’re part of an important public safety campaign. Some members of the Legislature who supported the tougher approach two years ago now wonder if it might undermine the usefulness of the online list. Legislation likely to be debated next year would authorize a study of how the changes approved in 2009 impacted the registry’s effectiveness.
It’s a debate over what has become the most prominent and, in the view of some, the most politically popular tool law enforcement created for use by the general public.
Prior to the changes, Nebraska used psychological assessments to categorize convicted sex offenders into three different lists, depending on levels using the assessment of psychologists. The expert analyses determined how likely an individual was they were to again participate in a sex crime. The lists were maintained by the State Patrol.
The list of those considered to be of the lowest risk was for the private use of law enforcement. A second list of people with a higher risk of re-offending could be shared with institutions like schools and organizations that dealt with children. The people considered at the highest risk of offending again, and of the greatest concern to the public, would have their photos and addresses listed on the State Patrol’s website. The system earned praise from both law enforcement and professionals who treated sex offenders and their victims.
“The good folks in the State Patrol did a lot of research on how would be the best way, and how we can improve upon that, and I believe they had a really good idea going,” said RoxAnne Koenig, coordinator of Adult Offender Treatment Services with Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska. She sat on a governor’s task force that reviewed how the state deals with those who commit sex crimes.
President George W. Bush signs in the Adam Walsh Act into law
“The majority of people were not on the Internet and were not on the public registry,” Koenig said. “They simply did not meet the criteria for being that dangerous.”
The current law abandons any psychological assessments in favor of rankings based solely on the type and seriousness of which crime of which they were convicted.
The change, according to the Nebraska State Patrol’s registry website, implemented a requirement that “all registered sex offenders would be listed on the public, online list. The classification or ‘risk levels’ will no longer be used and all registered sex offenders will be categorized by registration duration.” In the old system, someone would be placed on the registry for either ten years or his or her entire life. The new rules set timeframes at 15 years, 25 years, or life.
Their names now show up almost immediately after conviction, a feature strongly supported by child safety advocates and many in law enforcement. Col. David Sankey, the superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol, explained that the patrol is getting names added to website “in a matter of days.” In an interview with NET News, he explained that “under the old system, it could take months and sometimes more than a year for an individual to get through the hearing process and the appeal process before we get the public notified.”
The changes in Nebraska were part of a national push brought on by a federal law known as the Adam Walsh Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2006 (also known as the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, or SORNA). Congress wanted to create uniform reporting standards for states feeding information into a national sex offender registry. It also broadened the definitions of what constituted a sex crime and made it a federal offense for sex offenders to fail to update information about their whereabouts and employment to local law enforcement.
Passing the law was a major victory for advocates of tougher penalties and long-term tracking of anyone accused of sex crimes, especially those victimizing children.
“These improvements will help prevent sex offenders from evading detection by moving from one state to the next,” proclaimed then-President George W. Bush at the signing ceremony at the White House. “Data drawn from this comprehensive registry will also be made available to the public so parents have the information they need to protect their children from sex offenders that might be in their neighborhoods.”
To date, however, only seven states (Ohio, Delaware, Florida, South Dakota, Michigan, Nevada, Wyoming, as well as the Umatilla and Yakama Indian tribes) have fully complied with the federal law. In July, Nebraska was informed that its efforts to meet the federal requirements did not go far enough, especially in the public identification of juvenile sex offenders. States failing to comply with the federal guidelines could lose some of the federally controlled money collected from drug arrests. In Nebraska, that’s estimated at more than $160,000, used by the State Patrol.
“We’ve seen a lot of negative consequences come out of making that change,” said State Sen. Amanda McGill of Lincoln.
She is among the lawmakers urging a re-examination of a law she once supported. “In retrospect, we question whether we are really protecting people with the high number of people out there who aren’t truly a risk. And the politics of that, if we will be able to change the law, are extraordinarily difficult.”
In October, the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee held one in a series of hearings in advance of the likely introduction of LR 254.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, introduced the legislation. The resolution authorizes a study of the changes in the Nebraska Registry made in 2009. Senators want a review of which state laws will get someone listed on the registry, how often offenders are required to update their information, whether the new requirements are an excessive burden to both police and those listed on the registry, whether the reporting requirements improve public safety and the cost to both state and local government for following the federally-mandated rules.
At the start of the hearing, committee chair Ashford said in his prepared statement: “It has been suggested by opponents that the state is less safe as we have shifted to a system that lumps all offenders together under a single registry instead of separating those who pose little or no risk of reoffending from those who are likely to reoffend.”
At the hearing, Col. Sankey of the State Patrol, stated changes in the system have worked well and provide the public with more information than ever before.
The Patrol continues to maintain both the public and private lists of registered sex offenders.
“The intent of the sex offender registry is not to be punitive,” Sankey said. “It’s just a community notification program. To meet that intent, we are informing the community of sex offenders that have been convicted and are out in the communities.”
Sen. Ashford pointed out at the hearing that there are those who believe the change in the system is an improvement. “It should be noted that supporters of LB 285 argue that the changes made under this law make the registry more fair to all citizens of the state of Nebraska who violate an offense that requires registration in that the same violation will yield the same length of time on the registry,” Ashford said in his prepared statement.
Testimony at future hearings about the resolution will also provide an indication of public sentiment about taking a hard line on labeling sex offenders remains as strong as when the law was passed. Members of the Judiciary Committee are currently the focus of a lobbying effort launched by people now on the registry and their families. Half a dozen of them, including Todd Rung, testified at the hearing.
“It’s like having a scarlet letter. It’s like the witch hunts of the old days,” he told the committee.
Later, during an interview at his home, Rung said private counselors believe he’s unlikely to reoffend. A father with four kids in the house, the 40-year-old, trained as a union mason, said it’s been difficult for him to get any work. He would like the state to drop its requirement that an offender’s place of employment be listed on the public registry.
“It virtually makes you unemployable. What employer wants that tie to a sex offender?” Rung asked.
Koenig, the therapist with Lutheran Family Services, believes the stigma of being a sex offender in the job market might actually increase the potential for re-offending.
“In some ways it may be a response of hopelessness for someone on the registry,” Koenig said at her office in Bellevue. “You can’t get different sorts of jobs. You can’t get housing. What have we done to mitigate the risk (of reoffending) for that person? Almost nothing.”
“They need to have income, they need to feed themselves,” she continued. “They need to engage in society in a responsible manner.”
As of this summer, the U.S. Department of Justice informed Nebraska that its rules were still not tough enough and, as is called for in the Adam Walsh law, the state could still lose up to $160,000 in federal grant money. The State Patrol and Attorney General’s office believe additional changes made in the administrative rules and procedures may be sufficient to keep the state in compliance with the federal rules.
The Judiciary Committee will decide in the coming weeks whether to advance the legislative resolution calling for a study of the registry in motion.